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September 25, 2023

Mütter Museum to host town hall to address ethics of displaying human remains

The Oct. 17 event is the first of several public discussions intended to help the 160-year-old institution determine how it should handle specimens obtained without the consent of the dead or by unjust means

Arts & Culture Museums
Mutter Museum Town Hall THOM CARROLL/for PhillyVoice

The Mütter Museum is hosting a town hall on Oct. 17 to discuss the museum's future, including the ethics of displaying human remains.

The Mütter Museum wants the public's input on the future of its highly unusual and morbid collection.

On Oct. 17, the museum will host the first in a series of town hall events that aim to solicit feedback and spark discussion about the museum's practices and specimens in light of the changes made to its online collections database and the ethical debate about displaying human remains in a museum setting.

The hour-long meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. It will feature a moderated discussion and audience Q&A with the goal of soliciting critical feedback, new ideas and other insights into the future of the famously macabre 160-year-old institution.

The town hall marks the start of a larger public engagement project taking place over the next two years. That project will include discussions and workshops led by experts from multiple disciplines. It is being funded by a grant from the Pew Center For Arts and Heritage. 

People who wish to attend the town hall meeting can register on the museum's website

Located at 22nd and Chestnut streets, the Mütter Museum houses about 30,000 biological and medical specimens obtained from a variety of sources during the course of its history. In recent years, the public display of some of its 6,500 biological specimens has sparked an ethical debate and a growing rift between the Mütter's leadership and those who want to preserve the museum's legacy.

Earlier this year, the museum's management removed its online exhibits and videos from its 113,000-subscriber YouTube channel amidst the ongoing debate about the display of human remains, particularly those obtained without consent of the dead or through acts of historical injustice. A new database was launched in August, but it does not contain any images of human remains. 

"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," Mütter Museum Executive Director Kate Quinn said earlier this month.

The museum's public engagement project has its critics. Protect the Mütter, a group of former staffers and longtime members, criticized it as "an absurd attempt by the leadership to garner support for their incredibly unpopular and ruinous agenda."

"The administration has posited that we will hear from experts at this panel, and then have an opportunity to speak," a group organizer said. "But the event is only an hour long, which begs the question of whose opinion they truly value: their members and the public, or their own handpicked sycophantic 'experts?'"

In addition to the town hall, the Mütter Museum is hosting a slate of other upcoming events, including musical performances, film screenings, happy hours and book talks.

The Mütter's newest exhibition, "Illustrating Medicine: Treatment in Historical Texts" opened Saturday. The exhibit draws from a wealth of centuries-old medical texts and illustrations related to anatomy, herbal medicine and medical treatments from the 235-year-old Historical Medical Library.