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Having heard it referenced many times over the course of the class, whilst in Philadelphia over Thanksgiving Break, it struck me that visiting the Mutter Museum was a unique opportunity that I wouldn’t have a chance to participate in again for the foreseeable future. Ostensibly featuring a bevy of unique and potentially disturbing medical maladies, the Mutter Museum easily places itself within the narrative of dark tourism we’vebeen participating infor this past semester. A very small museum with a comparatively large price, the Mutter Museum was ultimately a disappointment.
The Mutter Museum is ultimately rendered an ambiguous experience due to the several contradictions inherent in its function. Though like many other dark tourist sites, the Mutter Museumpotentially engenders discussions about moral integrity, the questionable authenticity of the museum in addition to its dual nature as a purported place of science and “dark fun factory” (Stone 169) awkwardly places it somewhere in the middle, of no real use to anyone.
The lobby of the Mutter Museum is structured and decorated to give off the air of an old fashioned parlor/library.
The only part of the museum where the guest is permitted to take pictures, there are several tomes of academic literature and portraits of physicians scattered around a room that looks like it was ripped right out of the 19th Century. This is obviously done in such a way as to insist that the Mutter Museum is a place of genuine medical information, and at least artificially attempts to distance itself from the proponents of dark popular culture who visit the museum on a lark.
While a promising start to the proceedings, this is immediately contrasted by the first exhibit the guest comes across, dedicated to “real world examples of fairy tale anatomy”.
An intriguing idea that unfortunately didn’t hold up due to paper-thin thematic connection (featuring a Chinese bound foot that’s intended to fall into Cinderella’s narrative of spinning wheels is more than a bit of a stretch), through its clear sensational content, this works to dispel any aura of academic legitimacy the museum attempts to exude. Guests of the Mutter Museum are purchasing the right to gaze upon human examples of horrendous, often fatal, afflictions, “comfortably indulging their curiosity and fascination with thanatological concerns in a socially acceptable and sanctioned environment” (Stone 33) in the process.
As the guest moves throughout the museum, they are treated to a vast array of deformities and wide arrange of medical curios, from dwarf skeletons to massive mammary tumors to ovarian cysts that nearly trigger gag reflexes. This is naturally problematic, as it is impossible to argue that the guest isn’t gaining some sort of entertainment at the expense of the unfortunate “other” from the proceedings, comparable to a modern version of the carnival freak show. The Mutter Museum “implicitly” markets itself in a way that acknowledges the entertainment factor (with the tagline “Disturbingly Informative”), making their insistence that the museum is a platform of scientific knowledge fall further. When someone goes to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum in Hollywood, they are perfectly aware that they are about to engage in astronomically expensive kitsch with no academic basis.
But when they look at an excised 8’4″ colon at the Mutter Museum, the morality becomes muddled, as the guest in unsure as to whether they should be interested in the medical implications behind the colonor whether they should be celebrating the inherent reaction of disgust. Unlike many other dark tourist sites, the Mutter Museum fails at causing “morality [to be generated, maintained, challenged or confirmed within vitalized contemporary spaces” (Stone 70), largely due to the fact that the Mutter Museum itself doesn’t seem certain as to which side of its dual nature it wishes to embrace. Whereas upon visiting a site such as Auschwitz-Bikenau a visitor is virtually guaranteed to be appalled, a visitor to the Mutter Museum is much less likely to have a definitive reaction.
Ideally, a visitor wouldlook inward and see whether they’re horrified, politely intrigued, or entirely in favor of the commercialization of gruesome medical specimens, guaranteeing a “transformation of [the viewer’s] emotional structure and moral order” (Stone 64). However, in reality, there is enough conflicting information about how the experience is expected to be processed that most guests will leave without having maximized the moral possibilities the space provides. If a guest isn’t gaining any scientific knowledge or personal insights, what are they taking away from the experience? Morally ambiguous, the Mutter Museum seems to best be categorized as a dark fun factory, “recreating and commodifying death, suffering and the macabre, [while remaining) entertainment-centric” (Stone 168). As mentioned above, the “fairy-tale anatomy” exhibit attempts to put a light spin on what is otherwise an uneasy look at teratology.
Similar tactics are utilized in the temporary Civil War-based exhibit: “Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits”. Bedecked with Civil War photographs and décor, the highlight of the exhibit is a simulator allowing the guest to “experience” what having a limb amputated is like. The guest stands in the center of the room in such a way that a digital companion is projected onto a screen. A short time-lapse video follows, featuring your “arm” decaying, getting hacked off and then sewn up as the sounds of whirring buzz saws fill the room. A better example could not be hoped for in terms of “extracting and packaging up” death and suffering as “fun, amusement and entertainment” (Stone 169).
The “lighter” dark tourism continues in the exhibit and crosses over into the “hero worship” branch, with a special, shrine-like area set aside for Lincoln that features a mourning ribbon worn at his funeral parade, casts of his face and the kit used to embalm him. All tangentially related to Lincoln and not even directly related to death or demise, these items still manage to carry a sense of gravitas due to the historical narratives that they represent.
The sense of lighter dark tourism continues on into the gift shop, where the dark contents of the museum are fully made into commodities. While there are certain professionally photographed calendars that are somewhat tasteful, many of the contents of the gift shop are pure, unfiltered kitsch. A book entitled Boy of Bone: Stories Inspired by the Mutter Museum. Conjoined twin gingerbread men. Soap in the shape of a brain.An adorable stuffed animal in the shape of a medical leech. As stated in a previous essay, even kitsch related to less inherently dark tourist sites exhibits a negative effect upon the tourist experience and the tourist in question. But when the kitsch relates to something already as morally suspect and ambiguous as the Mutter Museum, its effects and implications become even more dubious.Kitsch is “intended to…engage individuals in a…form of sentimentality” (Sharpley and Stone 121).
While it cannot be denied that the Mutter Museum offers a “limited breaking with established routines and practices of everyday life” (Urry 2), waxing sentimental about the Mutter Museum essentially amounts to a glorification of the abnormalities of those less fortunate than the guest. An object that “attempts to repossess the experience of intensity and immediacy” (Sharpley and Stone 123) belonging to the Mutter Museum will further cement whatever moral message a guest extracted from their experience. However, as previously established, it is unlikely that the guest derived a moral message of any importance from the proceedings.
Though the College of Physicians of Philadelphia drives home the point that “the goal of the museum is to help the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body while appreciating the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease” (The College of Physicians of Philadelphia), it is likely that the general consensus of the museum’s audience is one of mild curiosity. The kitsch causes us to reminisce about “some aspect or element which induces pleasurable experiences which are, by comparison, out of the ordinary” (Urry 11), but it remains unlikely that any given guest is engaging with the museum in the way that The College of Physicians of Philadelphia originally intended. As such, the kitsch is merely perpetuating the entertainment factor behind the freak shows of old that we now, as a society, collectively despise.
The Mutter Museum’s ambiguity is fully cemented by the fact that despite all the advertising, there are actually very few real specimens. Yes, there is an extensively advertised and promoted wall of human skulls, but many of the actual examples of teratological anatomy are exhibited through the use of models and casts. A plaster cast of Chang and Eng. A model of a horn removed from a woman’s face in France. A mannequin arm extensively doctored to give off the impression that it belongs to a man with leprosy. All tourism, dark or otherwise, has the tourist “engage in ‘worship’ of shrines that are sacred…and as a result, gain some sort of uplifting experience” (Urry 10). This can be seen as a search for authenticity and existential fulfillment. However, what is the tourist to gain from inauthentic “authenticities”? Other than the sense of immediacy, why doesn’t a tourist just look up the contents of the Mutter Museum online? There are a smattering of “wet specimens” (as they’re referred to), but they are far outshined by artist’s interpretations.
Though the Mutter Museum may attempt to show us the mysteries and beauty of the human body, for many of the artifacts on display, they’ve already been filtered through an artist’s interpretation. Even if all of the specimens in the Mutter Museum were genuine, the guest would be unlikely to gain anything thanks to the contradiction between the museum’s purpose and actuality. Considering the fact that the authenticity of the museum’s contents is just as ambiguous as the message the guest is supposed to gain, we really must begin to question the necessity and efficacy of the Mutter Museum.
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