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September 18, 2023

Mütter Museum asks the public to weigh in on ethical battle over displaying human remains

Philadelphia's shrine to unusual medical history is in the midst of a culture war between devoted supporters and change-minded leaders who want to review the site's practices

Arts & Culture Museums
Mutter Museum Gallery Provided Image/George Widman/The Mütter Museum

The Mütter Museum has been at the center of a debate about the ethics of displaying human remains. The museum's main gallery is shown above.

A reckoning over the future of the Mütter Museum has put Philadelphia's unique showcase of medical oddities at a crossroads. And in a fierce battle over the ethics of displaying human remains, the museum's leaders are now enlisting the public to help decide the path forward. 

The museum announced it will begin a two-year public engagement project with town hall discussions, workshops and feedback stations placed next to certain items on display. There also will be a new exhibition and online videos that deal directly with questions surrounding respect and consent when using human remains in educational settings.

The initiative, dubbed "Postmortem: Mütter Museum," is being funded by a $285,500 grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. External experts from multiple disciplines will be brought in to help museum staff guide the public collaboration. 

“It’s important – now more than ever – that the Mütter Museum reckon with historically problematic collecting practices, specifically regarding the human remains in our care, and make changes focused on dignity and respect for the living and the dead,” said Mütter executive director Kate Quinn.  

Never for the squeamish or the faint of heart, the lore of the Mütter has long been fueled by morbid curiosity and wonder. Highlights from the museum's collection of more than 30,000 objects include an 8-foot-long "mega-colon" obtained from a man who suffered severe constipation and a wall of 139 skulls with inscriptions about how the people they belonged to met their fates. 

The museum, owned and operated by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, possesses about 6,500 biological specimens obtained during the course of the Mütter's 160-year history. 

What to do with these remains has become the focus of a widening rift between the Mütter's leaders and those who seek to protect the museum's legacy. 

Traditionalists view the Mütter's collection of human remains as a moving tribute to the anomalies of medical science. They believe these remains tell the story of modern medicine's inquiry into the extremes of human pathology, a fundamental part of life and death. 

Quinn took over last year after she was hired by CPP President and CEO Mira Irons, who took the helm at the medical college the year prior. They each share qualms about how the museum's remains were obtained. Many items entered the Mütter's collection before people could legally consent to donating their bodies to science, a choice that only gained legal clarity in the late 1960s. 

As part of the new initiative, for which planning began late last year, the museum will incorporate feedback from marginalized and disabled communities that have often been most impacted by unethical practices in both the museum world and the health care sector that serves as the museum's pipeline. 

“The mission of the College is to advance the cause of health while upholding the ideals and heritage of medicine," Irons said. “We are committed to owning our past and learning more from feedback that the project will provide.”  

Until now, the drama at the Mütter has largely played out between the museum's leaders and an opposition group called Protect the Mütter, comprised mostly of former staff and long-time members of the museum. The new initiative seeks to shift that conversation into the public sphere.  

"Many in the Mütter community have passionately expressed their thoughts about the museum’s future and we’ve been listening,” Quinn said. “This two year-long project will be the most robust community collaboration project ever undertaken by the museum."

The museum's first planned town hall is scheduled to take place Oct. 17. Details about the event have not yet been released, but the Mütter said it will hold a mix of in-person and online events. 

One organizer for Protect the Mütter called the museum's new initiative "tone-deaf" and "upsetting" for using a name that makes it sound as if the Mütter is dead. The organizer described the project as a "farce" meant to override the voices of more than 34,000 people who signed the group's online petition in May to have Quinn and Irons removed from their posts. 

"They could have just read the thousands of comments, emails and messages from the public for free," said the organizer, who asked to remain anonymous. "All of this speaks to a dangerously out-of-touch leadership that continues to ignore members, the public and reality as they embark on their disastrous plans for this historic and beloved institution." 

The start of "Postmortem" is just the latest volley in an increasingly contentious saga. 

In January, the Mütter's online exhibits and YouTube videos were taken down as part of a broad ethical review of the visitor experience. The galleries had served as virtual companions to the Center City museum, offering context and background about the human remains there.

After months of rancor, the Mütter launched a new online collections database in August with more than 20,000 searchable records and 5,100 high-resolution photos. 

Unlike the previous online exhibits, the new website doesn't contain any images of human remains. That only reinforced critics' fears that the Mütter is losing its way. They believe that some of the museum's most notable human remains, including its collection of human fetuses, could potentially be removed from display as a result of "Postmortem."

Exhibits around the world increasingly have been presented with the dilemma of weighing the educational value of human remains against the wish to rectify past injustices and foster welcoming environments. Quinn and Irons believe the museum needs to pivot from its macabre reputation. 

"We will plan for change along with our communities and guided by experts," Quinn said in a statement. “We expect Postmortem to inform a broader and more nuanced interpretive approach to explore and understand the history of American medicine and its continuing impact on our daily lives."

Quinn's detractors see the initiative, the overhaul of the Mütter's online presence and the ending of popular programs, such as the Dracula-themed events run in partnership with the Rosenbach museum and library, as diluting the museum's character. Protect the Mütter's petition describes the new direction as "reactive and fear-based," one that will put the museum's reputation and financial security at risk. 

The escalating culture war has drawn press from outlets like the The New York Times, The Washington Post and London's ArtReview, with features examining the Mütter's heritage and its existential crisis. 

In the museum's new online database, certain items like wax models and medical instruments contain both photos and descriptions. The records for biological specimens include descriptions only, with directions to obtain more detailed information by emailing requests to the College's collections department. The site invites people to provide feedback about the collection.

Protect the Mütter organizers denounced the new online database, describing it on Instagram as "a hastily thrown together shadow of the collection." The group said the website seemed to have been rolled out in response to criticism about the museum's removal of the previous online collection.

"This is a paltry attempt at appeasement," the anonymous organizer said. 

Quinn portrayed the Mütter's new online collection as the start of "a new era of transparency and accessibility" for both researchers and the public. 

The museum already has begun to gather feedback from focus groups. When the online database was launched, the Mütter shared findings from a series of discussions it held with Philadelphia residents over the last year, including many people from the city's predominantly Black Mantua neighborhood. Feedback ranged from support for the museum's current exhibits to "uneasiness" about some of the specimens on display, including the preserved fetuses. 

Quinn declined an interview to discuss the backlash the museum has faced, but offered a statement acknowledging the sentiments of those opposed to her vision. 

"Change is hard, and we understand that people are very passionate about the Mütter – we love it too!" she said. "Everything we’re doing is designed to make the museum better for our staff, our visitors, our students, and our researchers."

The anonymous Protect the Mütter organizer is a longtime member of the museum. She said the culture there has suffered under Quinn. By the organizer's count, 17 of about 50 employees have left the museum since Quinn took the reins. 

One point of contention — and a possible explanation for Quinn's actions — has been the question of whether the Mütter should pursue accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums. The membership organization includes Philadelphia institutions like the Penn Museum, where Quinn formerly worked as director of exhibitions and special programs.

Mütter Museum EthicsThom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

The Mütter Museum, at 19 S. 22nd St., is evaluating how it presents its collection of human remains as part of a new public engagement project.

AAM touts that its accreditation enhances credibility among potential funders and donors, but the Mütter never considered it a necessary designation to obtain. 

Robert Hicks, a former director of the Mütter, resigned from its board as an honorary advisor and chair in May, in part because of the increasing animosity about the museum's future. Hicks didn't believe that getting AAM accreditation would do much to elevate the Mütter, which he said already had excellent standing with peer institutions, funders and the public. 

"I did not think that achievement of accreditation was worth the expenditure of time," Hicks said in an email. When he resigned, he called on the board to investigate Quinn and Irons for their "deconstruction" of the Mütter.

Quinn and Irons have made AAM accreditation a priority for the museum, describing it as "a major step in gaining recognition as a fully accredited cultural institution." The Mütter is currently going through the organization's one-year Museum Assessment Program, a process that requires museums to conduct self-assessments. 

Despite the industry benefits that AAM member museums and their employees receive, skeptics think it could be a smoke screen with superficial advantages. The rigorous standards AAM has may be used by Quinn to justify dramatic changes to the museum. Her critics feel this could be part of her motivation.

"(The accreditation) doesn't actually fit the model of a medical history museum, and it would be over $1 million for them to comply with the standards that AAM wants," the organizer said. "It's really more for an art museum than a medical history museum."

Protect the Mütter organizers feel Quinn and Irons are misinterpreting what makes the museum special in the eyes of longtime supporters. Although the oddities at the Mütter carry a certain shock value for some visitors, others identify and empathize with the people whose remains are preserved there.

The organizer said she still regularly gives personal tours at the Mütter and encounters touching stories about visitors' interest in the museum. 

One woman born with spina bifida went to the museum recently and compared seeing a skeleton like hers to "looking at a family album," the organizer said. Over the summer, a fifth grader whose grandmother had recently died of lung cancer wanted to see the preserved lungs of people who were lifetime smokers. 

"He asked his parents to go to the museum after his grandmother died because that would make him feel better," the organizer said. "And it did."

The Mütter Museum says it plans to listen closely to the audiences who participate in "Postmortem." The academic experts it plans to bring in include medical professionals, ethicists and people who specialize in interpreting viewpoints about disability. 

Protect the Mütter organizers say they are not against the idea of evaluating ethical issues about particular specimens. They welcome making sensible changes at the museum. What they don't condone is broad ethical revisionism that could lead to a watered-down collection and a museum that avoids presenting medical history in a truthful light. 

"If we don't know where something came from and we don't have somebody saying, 'This is from my person, I want it back,' then what are we suppose to do with remains?" the organizer said. "The solution shouldn't be we either hide them or bury them. If these remains have the opportunity to live this second life of education, isn't that better? And yes, it should be respectful."

The organizers contend that protecting the Mütter means ensuring it survives as an uncensored learning environment and a place that powerfully and proudly greets people with their own mortality. 

"Everybody dies. Everybody will become bones and skin and flesh," the organizer said. "We all rot."