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Sketching human frailty at the Mütter Museum Philadelphia

February 9, 2016

Death Salon Shot

I waited many years to get to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. it’s the sort of place where I can lose myself for hours. I love sketching a museum full of fascinating artifacts.

I actually managed a quick trip last year, but have debated a while before posting the drawings. You may want to skip this post if it’s not your kind of subject matter. That would be perfectly understandable.

In this case, the sketches aren’t just history. Mayan culture  or Samurai armor. But rather, a look at the fascinating machine that is a human body – and the things that might go terribly wrong with it.


The Mütter is a museum of medical oddities. Antique anatomical wet-specimens, plaster casts, wax models, osteological (bone) collections, and rare medical instruments.

There’s a bit of a Dr. Frankenstein feeling about the place. The collection was originally assembled by a Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-1859). Initially begin as a means of teaching his private students, Mütter later donated his specimens to the College of Physicians – backed up by a sizable monetary endowment to launch the museum, and a demand for an on-going commitment to public access and education.


Dr. Mütter must have been an interesting man. He is described as an “exceptionally gifted ambidextrous surgeon”. Which is strangely specific praise. How did he demonstrate this ambidexterity? Removing a burst appendix with one hand while stitching a perforated bowel with the other?

He is known to have been a very successful surgeon, training in Europe before establishing a practice assisting Dr. Thomas Harris in Philadelphia. (No relation to Hannibal Lector-Thomas Harris. I don’t think?)15Nov16_Mutter_04Mütter is said to have been a handsome man, with a confident bedside manner. He was also a pioneer in reconstructive surgery. One of the first nip and tuck artists. I can see him played by Robert Downey Jr or Daniel Day Lewis depending on the kind of bio pic you might want to make.

But I don’t mean to  make light. His work was apparently ground-breaking. He was restoring club feet and cleft palates – not injecting botox. These were surgeries that could give a patient a productive life, or just allow them to walk down the street without drawing stares and mockery.15Nov16_Mutter_03aThis was a time before anesthetic – something he introduced to America. It was also before doctors had a real understanding of anatomy or awareness about the spread of disease. He’s credited as an early advocate of Aseptic Technique – which we take for granted in this age of hand sanitizer at the Walmart.

I can see his passion for teaching. Working as he was, with all manner of medical quackery going on around him, he must have felt a great drive to show the world the science behind the surgery. This was knowledge that could truly improve people’s lives, if it only could be better known.15Nov16_Mutter_05Only a small percentage of the collection is on display at any one time. To be honest, what began as a teaching collection is now a kind of educational haunted house with annual attendance exceeding 130 thousand visitors.

I don’t suppose there’s anything too wrong with that. But the display is biased towards the grotesque over the simply factual. (As are my sketches, I admit).

Besides the mesmerizing examples of non-viable fetuses in jars, and a variety of conjoined twins, there are skeletons of the smallest dwarf and largest man on record. Amazing to see how the body tries to adapt our basic pattern. The dwarf and the giant have the same bones, just squeezed together or stretched apart.15Nov16_Mutter_01You might also see the skeleton of a man whose bones never stopped growing – all fused together in a jumble. Or an exhibit of Anthropological CSI – skulls of pre-humans demonstrating various kinds of historic murder.

The most disturbing for me was the example of a perfectly normal child’s skeleton labeled ‘Healthy Youth”. Apparently not that healthy. It seems unfair that a lad would beat the odds of all these birth defects, abnormalities and murders, yet still end up as bones in a cabinet.

It’s certainly an informative collection. And if it sparks a youthful interest in medicine or just sends you away with an appreciation for your own good health – or how recently we’ve invented modern medicine – well that’s probably enough learning for a day.
If you’re in the Philadelphia area the museum is open daily 10-5pm (barring a few holidays). Photography is not allowed, but if you’re a sketcher they’re ok with that. In fact, the museum has run drawing classes in the past, so you might inquire about upcoming opportunities for art in the collection.

If you’re not passing through town any time soon, you might be interested in the late curator Gretchen Worden’s excellent book: The Mutter Museum: Of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.


13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2016 1:10 PM

    Very cool post and sketches! They seem to have a pretty strict policy about backpacks and bags described in the FAQ. What were you carrying your sketch kit in? And related to this exhibit, have you seen Body Worlds or other exhibits with the preserved human bodies? Really fascinating!!!

  2. February 9, 2016 2:08 PM

    Great sketches as always. Your sketches have such vitality to them, which is quite an odd thing to write in this instance since the drawings depict things that are decidedly non-vital.

    I have been longing to go to the Mutter Museum since we moved to America, almost 2.5 years ago. What has held me back is that I have four kids aged 6-12 and I am not sure how they would react to all of the exhibits. They are quite a macabre bunch but the human specimens might be a bit too much for them in that number. Maybe next time we have family visiting from the UK I can convince them to babysit so I can head there with my sketchbook.

    • February 9, 2016 6:41 PM

      It’s true – hard to say how a kid might react. I think I’d have loved it! But each to their own :)

      • February 9, 2016 7:13 PM

        I suspect mine will actually love it too but I probably ought to be responsible and check it out myself first.

        • February 9, 2016 7:32 PM

          A friend of mine once showed a book I’d worked on to his daughter. Around 7yrs I think? I was a black and white illustrated ghost story. The kid claimed to enjoy reading and wanted to see all the drawings – but – nightmares for days afterwards! So, you never can tell. (Just to say – it was the dads idea not mine!).

  3. Sue Sharrock permalink
    February 9, 2016 3:06 PM

    Thanks for this latest post. These images remind me a little of the work of Henry Tonks, a WW1 artist who depicted facial injuries in his art work.

    Hope to see you in Manchester.

    Best wishes, Sue Sharrock

  4. February 9, 2016 3:54 PM

    Fascinating! I will have to put this museum on my list. I understand how this could be a freak show in a way, but I love how you explained it and the Doctor honoring what he was trying to do.

  5. Nancy Cunningham permalink
    February 9, 2016 5:19 PM

    Very sensitive sketches and commentary, thanks. I lived in Philadelphia for a year of graduate school and never knew about this museum. It’s on my list now!

  6. Adrian Kleinbergen permalink
    February 10, 2016 2:41 AM

    Cool place. Great sketches! (I’m told they have quite the Halloween party there.)

  7. February 16, 2016 7:00 AM

    Astonishing drawings


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