The Mutter Museum, a 19th-century collection of medical trivia and mysteries at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, draws up to 160,000 visitors each year. Among the anatomical and pathological specimens on display are skulls corroded by syphilis; spines twisted by rickets; skeletons deformed by corsets; microcephalic fetuses; a two-headed baby; a bound foot from China; an ovarian cyst the size of a Jack Russell terrier; Grover Cleveland’s jaw tumor; the liver that joined the original “Siamese twins” Cheng and Eng Bunker; and the pickled corpse of the Soap Lady, whose fatty tissue decomposed into a congealed, asphalt-colored substance called adipocere.
“People are just naturally more interested in the unusual,” said Dean Richardson, professor of equine surgery at the New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “Who could look at a two-headed calf and not want to know how it happened? Biology is a marvel and is better understood when you realize that its complexity must inevitably lead to some ‘mistakes’.”
Prominent magician Teller, a native of Philadelphia, called the mothers a place of electric openness. “We are allowed to engage with real, not simulated, artifacts of human suffering and are able to appreciate the epic achievements of medicine from the gut,” he said.
But like everywhere in museums, the “Mother” is rethinking what it has and why it has it. Recently, the institution hired a PR consultant with experience in crisis management to stem internal and external criticism.
Trouble began in February when avid fans of the Mamas website and YouTube channel noticed that all but 12 of the museum’s approximately 450 images and videos had been removed. (In one hilarious video, staffers pretended to brush skulls’ teeth; in another, they pretended to drink from a skull.) Rumors spread quickly, and three months later, Kate Quinn posted the last September was hired as the mothers’ manager, an explanation. The clips, which had more than 13 million views, would be re-rated, she wrote, “to improve the viewer experience.”
Ms. Quinn commissioned 13 unnamed individuals – medical historians, bioethicists, disability advocates, community members – to provide feedback on the digital collection. “People from a broad background,” Ms. Quinn said in an interview. The purpose of what she called the “maternal autopsy,” which was due to be completed by Labor Day, was to ensure that the museum’s online presence was appropriate and that the 6,500 human remains on display were treated with respect.
The backlash to Ms Quinn’s ethical assessment was severe. An online petition collected the signatures of nearly 33,000 moms-enthusiasts who insisted they like the museum and its websites just the way they are. The petition criticized Ms Quinn and her boss, Dr. Mira Irons, the president and executive director of the College of Physicians, for decisions based on “utter disregard for the museum.” The complaint called for all web content to be reinstated and for the university’s Board of Trustees to fire the two women immediately. (To date, about a quarter of the videos have been reinstated.)
Additionally, in June, The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece titled “Culture Cancel Coming for Philly’s Weirdest Museum,” in which Stanley Goldfarb, a former college principal, wrote that the museum’s new “woke leaders” seemed anxious to to rid the museum institution of something unpleasant. Robert Hicks, director of the Mothers from 2008 to 2019, expressed similar views this spring when he left his job as a museum consultant. In his acrimonious letter of resignation, which he released to the press, it is stated that Dr. Irons “told in front of staff that she can’t bear to walk through the museum,” and advised the trustees to investigate her and Ms. Quinn. According to Dr. Hicks’ “elitist and exclusive” views on mothers.
Neither Dr. Goldfarb nor Dr. Hicks had tried to get Mrs. Quinn or Dr. Contact Irons to discuss their concerns directly.
Amid the professional grumbling, 13 employees left the company and panicked rumors surfaced on social media: that Dr. Irons planned to turn the Mothers into a research museum closed to the public; that Ms. Quinn had quietly removed “permanent” exhibits depicting malformed fetuses; that administrators wanted to deter “mad Goths” and undermine the organization’s mission, which is to help the public “understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and appreciate the history of the diagnosis and treatment of disease.”
In an email, Dr. Irons insists that hearsay is exactly that. “I categorically deny any intent, as Dr. Hicks claims that I hate the museum or that my goal is something other than ensuring that the materials we display meet professional standards and serve the college’s and museum’s mission,” she wrote. “In my view, much of this controversy is fueled by opposition to any changes to the status quo, to the point that we can’t even engage in a discussion without sparking blame and accusations.”
The museum was founded in 1859 by Thomas Dent Mutters, a professor of surgery, as a teaching tool to show budding doctors what might be in store for them. dr Mutter, who became the first surgeon in Philadelphia to use ether anesthesia, donated $30,000 to the museum and a fund of 1,700 anatomical oddities and medical oddities he had used in his classes.
The collection was expanded through later donations and purchases, some of which, like the soaped corpse of the Soap Lady, were obtained through subterfuge and bribery of gravediggers. In an era before physician consent was codified, the uncollected cadavers of inmates, the poor, suicide victims, and Native Americans were often made available to medical schools as cadavers for dissection and anatomy classes.
The Mutter was opened to the public in 1863 and was initially intended only for “medical practitioners”; in the 1970s it attracted 5,000 visitors a year. “A lot of people are initially interested in something because it’s weird, quirky, or exciting, but that sometimes leads you to delve into more substantive issues,” said Dr. Richardson. “I’d bet there were a lot of young people whose first nudge to think about the human body came from their mothers.”
In 1986, Gretchen Worden, the curator at the time, had the Mutters renovated in the theatrical aesthetic of a Victorian-era chamber of curiosities, with red carpets and red velvet curtains. “The depictions are harrowing reminders of mortality, a testament that a human being is truly the sum of his parts,” she said at the time. She boosted attendance with a popular, if somewhat spooky, museum calendar and mischievous appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman,” in which she threatened the host with lobotomy picks and tonsil guillotines, and teased him with hairballs and human horns.
dr Worden’s escapades were seen by some trustees as unworthy and at odds with the health-focused image they wished to promote, but she prevailed. Nearly a third of the college’s income now comes from mothers’ admissions, store and library services.
But museums that display human remains are increasingly being held accountable and scrutinized by the public. Some museums have abolished the term “mummy” to describe preserved corpses from ancient Egypt, deeming it inhuman. In 2021, Jo Anderson, curator at the Great North Museum in Newcastle, England, said: “A significant number of visitors question whether the mummified humans on display are real.”
“What was respectful 100 years ago, or even five years ago, may not be respectful today,” said Dr. Irons. With the mothers, she said, the challenge is to show visitors damaged body parts for what they really are — not objects or curiosities, but real people who once lived.
dr Irons, a doctor who treats children with rare genetic diseases, admitted she had trouble viewing certain exhibits, particularly fetal specimens presented as medical novelties. She would like such representations to convey a more comprehensive picture of the individual, the disease at hand, and the therapeutic advances that would impact those affected today.
Ms. Quinn was hired after a dozen years as director of exhibits and public programs at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. “I see my job as bringing us back to who we were before we took a left turn in terms of mission,” she said, referring to the era of Dr. been. “We actively distance ourselves from any possible perception of spectacle, oddity or disrespect towards the collections in our care.”
When she arrived, Ms Quinn was surprised to learn the mothers had no ethics policy, let alone a human remains protection policy. In addition, the museum had only fragmentary data on how many residents — as staff call the human specimens — came to see the mothers and the circumstances of their lives. “We owe it to the Remnants to know as much as we can about each individual who is here,” Ms Quinn said. “And yes, it matters to a lot of people.”
The museum has arranged for the return of the remains of seven Native Americans to communities in New Jersey and California, as required by federal law. Ms. Quinn seeks to stay ahead of the rapidly changing legal and ethical landscape by conducting the first comprehensive audit of museum objects since the 1940s. She expects this process to take at least four years as the records and complexity of the mothers’ collection of 35,000 items, most of which are in the basement, are stored away.
dr Hicks remains unhappy with the new prospect. “DR. “Mothers would have been confused if they had said that the museum should be about health and not death,” he lamented in his resignation letter. “The tenet emblazoned at the entrance to many anatomy theaters: ‘Serve here the dead to the living’, is easily understood by museum visitors without special guidance from Dr. Irons.”
Ms Quinn said: “Robert Hicks? Someone once said, “Some people make people happy wherever they go; others whenever they go.’”