A Visit to the Mütter Museum

Mr Pict’s parents flew over the Atlantic to stay with us during the festive season.  As such, we had the opportunity for some babysitting so we left the kids with the grandparents so that we could head into Philadelphia for the day.  Time alone together as a couple is incredibly rare so what did we do with this brief period of child-free time?  We went to the Mütter Museum to look at medical specimens.  Ah the romance!

I have wanted to visit the Mütter Museum since we emigrated to the Philly area just over three years ago.  However, not being certain of how child-friendly it was, we had not been in a position to go.  I am definitely much more into medical oddities than Mr Pict is but he was happy to accompany me to the Museum and check it out.

The Mütter Museum is actually part of the College of Physicians and the original collection was compiled and donated by Dr Thomas Dent Mütter in order to serve as an education tool.  The collection is absolutely vast and apparently only 13% of it is on display at any one time.  This is no doubt in part because the building is actually pretty small by Museum standards.  One exhibition space is essentially just the mezzanine around a staircase, for instance.  For obvious reasons – these exhibits being the remains of individual human beings – photography is not permitted within the galleries.  I, therefore, decided I would take a sketchbook, pencil and fountain pen along with me so I sketched (which is permitted) as I wandered around.  The cramped spaces and the fact that the Museum was so busy made drawing quite awkward, primarily because I found it hard to find a spot that allowed me a good enough view to draw a specimen while not obscuring the views of others but also because ever so often people would gather around me to see what I was drawing and made me feel self-conscious since I was only rattling off rapid sketches.

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We started off on the aforementioned mezzanine level.  This was organised on a sort of Brothers Grimm theme, connecting medical conditions to some of the grotesque elements of their stories.  I thought that was quite an unexpected and interesting theme on which to curate the collection.  There were lots of desiccated limbs and the occasional head.  We read about dry samples – useful because medical students could actually handle them and information, things like blood vessels, could be written or drawn on them – and wet samples, the type stored in jars of liquid.  In addition to the actual human remains, there were casts and wax models of other medical anomalies.  Strangely enough, because these actually looked more human, given they were neither shrivelled or bloated by the preservation techniques, they were more disconcerting to look at than the actual human remains.  Probably the star attraction on this level were the slides of tissue taken from Einstein’s brain.  For me, the most interesting part of that particular exhibit wasn’t the tiny slivers of grey matter but the fact it highlighted the ethics of taking and keeping samples of human tissue.  Neither Einstein nor his next of kin had consented to having his brain removed and studied which means that ownership of any of his brain tissue surely violates moral codes if not medical ethics.  The case of Einstein’s brain is particularly captivating of course because of his fame and the fact his death was relatively recent.  The same moral debate, however, could be applied to probably the majority of specimens held by the Mütter Museum.  I very much doubt that most of the people whose bodies or parts are on display consented to be used for medical science and education.  This moral quandary added another layer of interest and engagement to our visit.

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Probably the most arresting display – for me at least – in the whole museum was a cabinet, the length of one wall, of scores of skulls.  Arranged in serried rows in glass cabinets, these skulls were the collection of Joseph Hyrtl, an anatomist from Vienna.  Apparently the idea of the collection was to demonstrate the variety evidenced in European anatomy, not eugenics or phrenology, and as such each skull was labelled to identify its origin.  What was disconcerting and somewhat unsettling about these labels was that it gave not just the nationality of the individual but in most cases their name, age, and cause of death.  It was impossible not to think of the lives behind these skulls, the stories that led to their deaths, the loved ones they left behind to mourn them.  In many cases, the deaths were violent ones – either execution or suicide – and so the tragedy was amplified.  There were teenagers, for example, who had committed suicide when they were discovered to have committed a theft and I found myself wondering what desperate straits had motivated the crime and what awful crises they must have experienced to feel that the only solution was death.  I found I could not just gloss over any single skull.  Each of them represented an individual person and I felt this quite powerful obligation to pay my respects to each of them, to acknowledge that each had existed.  It was weirdly emotive and I find it quite difficult to convey that mixture of fascination and poignancy.

Given he is a Civil War nerd, Mr Pict enjoyed a gallery devoted to the effects of that bloody conflict on human anatomy.  There were the famous photographs of skeletal remains being exhumed from battlefields in order to be interred in cemeteries and the photographs of legs and arms in the baskets of field hospitals but there were also bones containing bullets and shrapnel, intestines scarred from dysentery and preserved organs ravaged with other diseases that felled many soldiers.  The Mütter Museum houses a vast collection of books so another exhibition was dedicated to Vesalius, whose writings and drawings became some of the earliest medical textbooks.

The basement floor of the Museum is really where most of the “oddities” are.  This is the area of the museum that is really devoted to rare medical anomalies most of us won’t encounter in our lifetimes either because they are so rare or because medical advances would either prevent the conditions or would at least make them treatable.  Most challenging for Mr Pict and I were all the specimens of babies, both fetuses and newborns.  I imagine very few people would be unmoved by these tiny little bodies in jars or otherwise preserved.  However, because we have experienced pregnancy loss and had a stillborn son, these particular specimens were even more emotive for us and stirred up trauma and grief.  Mr Pict found it too difficult to spend much time in that area of the museum.  I found I could compartmentalise enough to have a read and a look and I even drew one of the conjoined twin skeletons.  It was definitely the most difficult part of the museum, however.

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I have an interest in the history of freakshows.  Among the most famous “freaks” were the conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker whose origins in what is now Thailand originated the term “Siamese Twins”.  The Mütter Museum possesses a death cast of Chang and Eng’s heads and torsos and their conjoined liver because the College of Physicians conducted the autopsy when the men died in the 1870s.  Those were interesting to see since I have read so much about Chang and Eng.  There were also some fascinating osteological specimens.  These include the tallest skeleton on exhibit in America, that of a man who stood at 7’6″ tall.  His remains were contrasted with those of a dwarf who had died in childbirth.  There is also the skeleton of a man named Harry Eastlack who succumbed to a condition called FOP which caused all of his issues to ossify.  He had actually donated his body to the collection to aid research into his medical condition and potentially benefit others.

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Mr Pict and I both found at least one thing each in the Mütter Museum that made us squeamish.  In common with many of the male visitors, the genital specimens made Mr Pict feel a little uncomfortable.  Among these was a plaster cast of a hugely swollen scrotum.  Every man I observed looking into that particular case appeared to wince.  For me it was the eyeballs.  One glass case contained row upon row of wax models of eyes suffering from various maladies, diseases and injuries.  Not much about the human body makes me squirm but I definitely do not like anything to do with eyeballs.  The last time I was prescribed eyedrops, all four children had to pin me down while Mr Pict dripped them into my eyes.  That is how much I detest anything to do with eyeballs.  I definitely felt decidedly queasy looking at all of those eyeballs.

Our trip to Philadelphia was not all body parts, however.  After our excursion to the Mütter Museum, we were (maybe somewhat peculiarly) ravenous so we went for lunch in a Mexican restaurant.  It was a definite treat to eat a delicious lunch without having to wrangle kids.  Great food while relaxing with wonderful company – uninterrupted – was the perfect end to a lovely and fascinating day out.

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Anatomy of a Bunny Art Journal Page

When I was teaching High School English, I found that my lessons would often involve some discussion of a tangent, sometimes a tangent so tenuously linked to the core of the lesson that the discussion would conclude with much head-scratching about how we had ever wandered onto the topic.  It was all good, of course, because the students were still learning something plus it was often the memory of the tangent that would trigger them to remember a key detail about the actual lesson.  I am connected to many of my former students on Facebook and I find it amusing and interesting to learn what information from my lessons they still remember vividly all of these years on.  I have found the same to be true of travel also.  The most memorable episodes from our road trips and city wanderings tend not to be the things we planned in advance but the random encounters and the stumbled upon places.  I argue, therefore, that tangents have merit, that tangents are worth exploring.

And all of the above is preamble rather than a tangent because it was a tangential thought that led to the creation of this week’s art journal page.

The prompts for the Documented Life Project this week were “cover up good stuff” and “going undercover” as part of the continuing theme of layering.  I think the intention was that the group members should take an appealing base layer, something appealing, something effort had been invested in, and that layer would act as inspiration to be built upon through further layers until the original piece was either completely or almost all covered up.  I can see that it would be an effective technique and could build a very dynamic page with a lot of depth.  However, I am finding that extensive layering is not really my thing and the idea of using art resources for some “good stuff” and then using more resources to cover that up was somewhat anathema to me.  That gave me something to ponder…

Layers.  Covering up.  Our visit to the Body World: Animals Inside Out exhibition at the Franklin Institute.

My mind was wandering along a tangent.  The muse of contrariness was singing to me.  I had my lightbulb moment.  I decided I was going to create a page about animal anatomy involving layers of the body and layers of paper by constructing flaps.

I divided my page into three, cut along the top edge on two of those thirds and folded the left and right sides inwards so as to create three layers.  On the top layer, I painted a bunny.  A dead bunny.  I seem to default to bunnies a lot.  I produce a lot of zombie bunnies, whether in a horde of bunnies or among other woodland creatures, and then there was the worried bunny in the woods and the countless bunnies who appear here and there in my art journal, in ATCs, doodles and sketches.  I seem to have bunnies on the brain.  I was born in the Chinese zodiac year of the rabbit so perhaps the rabbit is my totem animal, to mix cultural traditions.  Lifting the dead bunny flap, I drew an exact replica of the dead bunny’s silhouette since I had cut out a template from a scrap of cardboard.  I drew internal organs onto the torso of the bunny.  This was the muscle and organ layer.  Vets and anyone with a grasp of animal biology may be bewildered and disturbed by my knowledge of rabbit anatomy.  I did nothing to correct my ignorance, not even a quick google, and instead just shoved some human style organs and a daft love shaped heart into the abdomen.  That layer painted, it was time for the final layer.  This one was the skeleton layer and again I just drew whatever bones I thought would work for the drawing rather than actually investigating what a rabbit’s skeleton looks like.  Daft bunny in all three layers.  The final layer was, of course, flanked by the reverse of the other two flaps.  I did not like them staying as blank spaces so I wrote “Anatomy of a Bunny” on one side and glued my ticket to the exhibition on the other side so as to document our family day out for the weekend and record an element of my inspiration for the page.

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I hope my art journal page has made you smile on this very chilly weekend.

Hearts and Other Organs on Valentine’s Day

Nothing says Valentine’s Day like actual hearts, right?  So off we went to the Franklin Institute for a family day out so that half of us could visit the special exhibition ‘Body Worlds: Animals Inside Out’.  Valentine’s Day happened to fall on an especially chilly day so using our annual membership pass for some indoor entertainment and education was perfect.


The exhibition was superb from start to finish.  The kids and I had enjoyed the animal autopsy documentary series ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’ so I knew we would find it engaging.  I went around with my 11 and 7 year olds while Mr Pict took the other two boys around other areas of the museum.  The exhibition showcases the work of the anatomist Dr Gunther von Hagens and his use of the plastination process to preserve and demonstrate the internal organs, musculature and blood systems of a variety of animals.  Being able to see all of the detail of each animal aids understanding of how evolution has worked to enable each animal to adapt to its environment and needs and – in a context that enabled and encouraged comparison and contrast – to see how similar skeletons and organs work differently in diverse species.  The boys and I pored over the detail in each specimen and read every plaque.  We also wandered back and forth to go and study something again.




My 7 year old is obsessed with horses so he was fascinated by all the horse specimens in particular.  There was a horse skull, a wafer thin slice of a horse’s head, a horse’s head split into three sections, a horses head comprising nothing but the capillaries and a young horse rearing up.  There was always the potential for my son to be disturbed by the sight of dead horses but the little scientist in him was stronger.  He was absorbed in seeing the adaptations in the legs, the size of the brain cavity, the thickness of the nose and in learning why it is that horses cannot vomit.


The handling of the specimens was fantastic in terms of bringing the educational lessons to life, for instance in showing how the muscles and skeleton combine to handle movement. One diorama depicted two reindeer in mid gallop.  I like to think that the dissected human we saw in the last gallery was not Santa.  There was also a bull posed as if ready for a charge which evocatively demonstrated the power in its muscles and the energy contained within them.  There were running ostriches, one showing the circulatory system and one showing the muscles.



There were familiar farm animals galore, from dissected sheep and goats to ducks and piglets shaped from the mass of red wiring that was their circulatory system.  There were rabbits and peeled cats – including the nervous system of one moggy – and frogs and lizards and a dog caught in mid-bark.  There were slices of fish, there were preserved octopus and squid – the latter providing us with the opportunity to see just how large its eyes were.  The more exotic land beasts, however, provided the highlights of the exhibition.  There was a camel – or rather a conflation of three camels in order to illustrate the movement of the head – which the kids found fascinating since camels are such peculiar looking beasts even from the outside.  The specimen was used to illustrate its complex digestive system involving four stomachs.  Best of all, however, was the giraffe exhibit.  One giraffe was presented in thin slices.  We could stand between its legs and look up through its semi-transparent layers.  Completely weird and compelling.  The other giraffe was dissected, its skin peeled off to show the skeleton, muscles and organs, but the specimen was shown as if mid-run.  Next to it was a preserved heart in order to show how the blood pressure of a giraffe is made possible.




It was not just the whole animals that were fascinating, however.  I loved the sculptural quality of the tangled lines that formed the circulatory system, all the blood vessels turned into crimson plastic.  The hearts of various animals were shown side by side so that the different structures and scales could be compared.  A display my cheeky 7 year old especially enjoyed was all about the reproductive organs, the male parts of a reindeer, the testicles of a bull and a fetal reindeer.  I admit that made me feel a little sad as did the baby camel on display.  Apparently all the specimens were sourced ethically from vets and zoos and no animals were killed for the purpose of the exhibit.  My boys and I certainly emerged from the exhibition with greater understanding of the wonders of biology.

We went to rejoin the other half of the Pict family who were – oddly enough – running around in the Franklin Institute’s giant heart.  In addition to the heart area and the other favourite, the brain, we went to explore two sections of the Institute we had not visited in any of our prior visits, namely the sections dedicated to electricity and to engineering.  The boys especially enjoyed creating electrical circuits with their bodies, initially just completing the circuit with their own individual bodies but gradually linking hands and forming a circular chain in order that the electricity pass through them all and make the light come on.  My highlight of the engineering section was seeing Maillardet’s Automaton.  Constructed in the 18th Century, it is a complex contraption, a figure programmed so that it draws numerous pictures and writes poems.  You can see a short video of it in action on YouTube because certainly I am incapable of describing it adequately.


We have plans to return to the Franklin Institute again in a few weeks’ time so we are certainly getting our money’s worth out of our annual membership.