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May 12, 2023

Mütter Museum weighs ethical concerns over online exhibits displaying human remains

In recent months, the institution removed videos and other content about its vast medical collection. Now, it is holding discussions with supporters as part of an ongoing review to determine the best path forward

History Museums
Mütter Museum Ethics Thom 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.

The Mütter Museum's collection of medical specimens and tools has long offered a window into the anomalies of the human body. Often recommended to visitors of Philadelphia, the museum's exhibits educate and sometimes overwhelm guests with the grim realities of the people whose remains are on display.

In recent months, the museum's management chose to remove all of its online exhibits and videos from its YouTube channel, which has more than 113,000 subscribers. The decision was made against the backdrop of a larger debate about the display of human remains, particularly those obtained without the consent of the dead and through acts of historical injustice that originally made them available for scientific inquiry. 

On Friday, the Mütter Museum addressed the status of its online content with a statement explaining that its leadership is reviewing how to best improve the overall visitor experience. The museum acknowledged that some of its supporters are unhappy with the content removal, calling it temporary and inviting people to participate in a series of upcoming discussions about how to move forward.

Executive Director Kate Quinn told WHYY this week that staffers are evaluating ethical issues about the use of human remains as part of the museum's online presence. In particular, the museum wants to assess content that shows remains that were acquired without clear consent.

The museum's specimens include an enlarged heart donated by Robert Pendarvis, a man whose rare genetic condition, called acromegaly, causes overgrowth of his bones and organs. When Pendarvis got a heart transplant in 2020, he gave his old heart to the Mütter Museum and signed documents transferring ownership.

The YouTube video the museum made about Pendarvis' heart became a useful way for him to share basic information with doctors for ongoing treatment. He told WHYY the video's removal was "a little frustrating" because it had helped him have better experiences with health care workers.

There has been a growing push for museums to reevaluate the display of remains from groups like Native Americans and enslaved people, with efforts underway to repatriate collections that have problematic histories.

In January, a ProPublica investigation took inventory of more than 110,000 Native American specimens still held and often displayed at museums in the U.S. despite a 1990 federal law requiring these remains be returned. Hundreds of these remains are in the possession of Philadelphia institutions like the Penn Museum, Temple University and the Mütter Museum. The investigation found that the Mütter Museum had 54 Native American remains.

The Mütter Museum has been receptive to repatriating some remains, including those belonging to an Australian Army soldier who had been featured in an online exhibit. When the Australian Army saw the online exhibit in 2017, the museum gave up the soldier's remains.

The University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University have both apologized for housing bones belonging to a victim of the 1985 MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia. The remains, which had been used for instruction, later were released to the victim's family. A Penn-commissioned investigation determined that two professors showed "extremely poor judgment and gross insensitivity," but did not violate any legal or ethical standards.

Philadelphia's mishandling of other remains from the MOVE bombing, found stored in a basement at the Medical Examiner's Office, led to the resignation of former Health Commissioner Thomas Farley in 2021. Farley admitted he had ordered the remains to be cremated after they were found in 2017, without notifying family members or other city officials, but an employee did not follow those instructions. Those remains also were returned to surviving family members.

In 2020, facing pressure from student groups, the Penn Museum moved a collection of 1,300 enslaved people's skulls into a storage room.

And in Philadelphia's schools, skeletal remains once used to teach anatomy also have come under greater scrutiny since a human skull belonging to a Native American man was found at Central High School in 2021.

Concerns about using human remains for trendy museum exhibits have cropped up in years past, including criticism of "Body Worlds," the popular traveling show that came to the Franklin Institute in the 2000s. 

Although German exhibit creator Gunther von Hagens said the preserved cadavers in "Body Worlds" came only from informed American and European donors, von Hagens also received unclaimed bodies from Chinese medical schools and the former Soviet Union. Among them were the bodies of homeless people, prisoners and hospital patients. Since there was no clear paper trail from the donors to the bodies that were made anonymous during their preparations for "Body Worlds," questions have lingered about their true origins, NPR reported

More recently, a similar international touring show called "Real Bodies" came under fire in England for displaying preserved human corpses that may have been political prisoners executed in China. Other touring exhibits like this have been shut down over the years due to similar suspicions as well.

The Mütter Museum, which is run by the Philadelphia College of Physicians, has not set a timeline for any further action related to its online exhibits and YouTube channels.

The Mütter Museum's collection has led to some meaningful scientific discoveries, including DNA found on an instrument that offered new insight into the small pox vaccine that was used during the Civil War. And in 2014, Canadian researchers were able to map the genetic blueprint of cholera bacteria using a postage stamp-sized sample of intestinal tissue that had been taken from the remains of a Philadelphia man whose tissues were preserved at the Mütter Museum.

As of this week, the museum's collections have been closed off to research. The museum's website says this is related to a major renovation and expansion of collections storage rooms, conservation labs and work spaces. Research is expected to resume in August. 

The scaling back of online content doesn't appear to be a sign that the museum's future is in jeopardy. In March, the Philadelphia College of Physicians acquired two properties surrounding its Chestnut Street campus, the Philadelphia Business Journal reported. The goal is to expand its offerings and exhibits.

The museum has not yet shared information about the discussions it is planning as part of its current review.

"Our goal is to improve the visitor experience, while remaining true to the ethical and respectful display of human remains," the museum said. "This review is a critical step to help get us there."