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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Sketching at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

It is actually rather surprising that I have lived in the Philly suburbs for two years and yet Sunday was my first ever trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  We have, of course, past it many times.  It is a hard to miss the main building, imposing in its elevated position and in its architectural stylings as some sort of Greek temple.  The first Sunday of every month (and Wednesdays after 5pm) are “pay what you like” entry meaning we gave a donation rather than paying the usual ticket price.  That made it much more affordable for us to visit and not feel we had to see absolutely every item on display.  It was the perfect time for us to take the boys along to an art gallery – and the PMA is one of the biggest in America – since we are close to concluding our History of Art project.  It was interesting to see how much learning about art history and theory they had absorbed (way more than I had anticipated) and to see which of the artists we had studied they were eager to see the works of.

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Most of our family trips to museums and art galleries have always involved sketching.  It keeps the boys engaged, keeps them occupied while Mr Pict and I read information about the exhibits, and gets the kids to observe details they might otherwise overlook.  I had intended on taking along our art journals for sketching in but I knew large bags had to be checked at the museum and I didn’t fancy carrying five books around so I had a brainwave and grabbed a large stack of index cards instead.  They turned out to be perfect!  We could hold them in our hands easily while we drew even if we were standing in a crowded room.  The idea was to just draw whatever caught our interest, entire compositions or details, attempts to copy a work of art or just use it as the basis of something else.  My 10 year old, for instance, did a lot of Batman homages and my 12 year old zombified drawings.

I don’t know if it was just that the docents were made antsy by increased visitors (if there even were swollen numbers because of the name your entry fee day) but I have never been made to feel more unwelcome in a museum in my life – and I have been to a vast number of museums in my time.  My kids were well behaved but I was made to feel as if I had to keep them shackled to my side or else risk being chastised by someone in a uniform.  In a wide open room with hardly anyone in it, my kids were sitting on the floor to do some sketching.  Nobody had any difficulty moving around them.  They were not remotely in anyone’s way.  Nevertheless, we were told they had to get up off the floor because they were endangering other visitors.  Later Mr Pict was told off for pointing in the direction of a painting even though his arm would have to have grown at least a foot for his finger to have even come near the painting.  Our little one can be a bit of a hand full so we had eyes on him at all times and kept him in grabbing reach.  Regardless, his butt only just had to touch a bit of the balcony  – because he took a step backwards – and he was told off for doing something dangerous.  It was exasperating.  I also don’t think it is the ethos or atmosphere museums should be striving for.  Exclusivity means encouraging engagement with all types of people including children.  That, however, was the only bum note in our trip and I would say that two of the docents were very good.  One was actively engaging people in conversation about art rather than just staring at visitors and one was very interested in the drawings the boys were doing and gave a hearty chortle when she saw that my 8 year old had turned his drawing of Renoir’s Washerwoman sculpture into Batman.

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We knew we could not possibly cover the whole of the main building’s galleries in one visit  – at least not without rushing and getting many grumbles from the kids – so we decided to focus on American art and the 19th Century European galleries as that would cover the majority of the artists who we had studied as part of our art history project.  The PMA has an impressive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works of art.  The boys settled down to draw their first sketches in a room lined with Renoirs, Monets, Manets and one of Degas’ Little Dancer sculptures.  My 6 year old was especially taken with all of the Renoir nudes and used a lot of index cards drawing voluptuous women inspired by Bathers and some other pieces.  We also spent a lot of time in a room containing a Munch mermaid frieze and paintings by Klimt, Schiele and Friedrich.  It was fascinating seeing the Klimt piece – Klimt being one of my favourites – as it was unfinished and I was able to see his approach to painting the different elements of the portrait, making the background and figure cohere.

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It was pleasing to see the boys recognising the work of artists before reading the labels.  I have been unsure of how much of the learning from our History of Art project has been sinking in but it seems like they have been absorbing far more information than they were letting on.  Cezanne’s Bathers was one of the paintings we had studied so it was cool for them to see its huge scale.  They were excited to spot on of Monet’s water lily paintings and to see one of Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings and they were chattering knowledgeably about Van Gogh’s use of thick paint.  They were also able to identify a Modigliani from just a glimpse of it in a corridor.  My 10 year old was over the moon to spot a Lichtenstein, whose comic book style had really chimed with him, and they were also able to recognise works by Kandinsky, Mondrian and Klee.  My 8 year old absolutely loves the work of Chagall and Picasso so he was jumping up and down with joy when we first walked into the museum and saw Chagall’s massive Wheatfield on a Summer Afternoon.  He also loved seeing Chagall’s Half Past Three and visited the museum shop in order to buy a postcard of it for his bedroom.  We also spent a lot of time studying Picasso’s Three Musicians and sketching its figures and patterns and shapes, either trying direct copying or drawing inspired by the painting.

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We had a detour through the armoury section and the museum’s collection of rooms from various historic periods shifted wholesale from their original settings.  We also stopped to watch and listen to a group of musicians demonstrating traditional Dia de los Meurtos music.  Then it was time to move onto the American galleries.  The boys’ concentration was flagging at this juncture, however, so it was a speedier walk through with me just pointing out some of the highlights.  I was frustrated to only chance upon one Sargent portrait as he is another of my favourites and I had hoped to show the kids more.  We were able to see a few Winslow Homer pieces, including The Life Line which was one of the paintings we had looked at when studying Homer.  The Museum also holds an impressive collection of paintings by Thomas Eakins, a realist painter from Philadelphia.  He is an artist I am not very familiar with so I was glad of the opportunity to look at so many of his portraits, including two massive paintings of celebrated physicians teaching.

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Once outside, the boys could burn off some of their energy.  Although they have never seen the movie, my boys are aware of the iconic scene from ‘Rocky’ in which Rocky runs through the streets of Philly before triumphantly running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  They, therefore, decided to recreate the scene and ran down and then up the steps.  My 6 year old, by far the most physical of my kids, powered up and down the whole flight of stairs several times before we urged him to stop.  We then popped around the corner to take a photo of them with the bronze statue of Rocky at the bottom of the steps.  I find it quite amusing that of all the sculptures in Philly one of the most famous is of a fictional character.

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The trip to the Museum was a birthday treat for me.  I love art (you may have noticed) but have not visited a major art gallery since we emigrated to America so it was a real treat to go and visit such a huge collection.  I was unsure of the extent to which the kids would engage with the trip but, between sketching their way around and their ability to recognise the work of certain artists, they were on top behaviour with very little mumping and moaning until they flagged right at the end.  We will definitely return to see more of the museum some other time.  I will also remember to take index cards with me for future trips – we produced almost 100 drawings between us on this single visit.

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Statue of Liberty Art Journal Page

The Documented Life Project’s theme continued to be doodles and this week’s prompts were to make a custom element and “Ride the energy of your own unique spirit”, attributed to Gabrielle Roth who I have never heard of I’m afraid.  I do try to conform to the parameters of the prompts, to create a direct response to at least one of them, but this week I did go off piste a bit.  Between my trip to New York City, Mr Pict being away in California and the kids being on Spring break, I just had to get cracking with a page regardless of not having had an idea emerge from reading the prompts.

I decided to ignore the quotation and, since I have somewhat exhausted my repertoire of doodles, I decided to interpret the idea of custom doodling a bit differently.  I decided that custom doodling could be interpreted as very quick sketching as the mark making involved is somewhat akin to doodling.  Since I had just returned from my trip to New York City where I saw the Statue of Liberty, I decided that Liberty would be the subject of my page.  I could not sketch in the field, of course, but I did the next best thing which was to give myself a very short period of time in which to sketch out a study of Liberty from my photographs.

I started by getting some colour down onto my page which I did with two colours of Dylusions ink sprays.  I then put down some very rough pencil lines just to help my placement of elements on the page.  Then I got my India ink and dip pen out and gave myself just a couple of minutes to sketch Liberty’s head and hand clasping the torch.  I then added some watercolour pencil for shading around the face and fingers.  I am quite pleased with how the page turned out.

Week 13 - Doodle & Energy of Spirit