Bridging Art and Medicine: How the Mütter Museum Educates the Public
Dr. Dent Mütter and Dr. Isaac Parrish were both graduates of The University of Pennsylvania as well as members of the College of Physicians. In the late 1850s, the two physicians had an idea of creating a medical museum, however Parrish passed away before their idea came to fruition. In 1858, Mütter donated a collection of 1,700 specimens and $30,000 towards the founding of the Mütter Museum. Today, the Mütter Museum displays more than 25,000 pieces of medical art and specimens.
I had the chance to speak with the manager of Media and Marketing, Gillian Ladley, and the museum educator, Marcy Engleman, about how the museum intersects of medicine and art and challenges its visitors to view medicine through alternative lenses.
C: Tell me about yourself and why you decided to work at the Mütter Museum.
Engleman: I am Marcy Engleman and I am the museum educator here at the Mütter Museum. I teach lessons to visiting groups, give tours, manage the docents which are the volunteer educators and tour guides. I occasionally participate in the construction of some of the exhibit texts, as well.
Before working at the Mütter Museum, I worked at the Philadelphia Zoo. I wanted to work at the Mütter Museum because I saw a good opportunity to expand my knowledge of museum education.
Ladley: I am Gillian Ladley and I handle the media marketing here at the Mütter Museum. I also handle the social media and advertising for the museum events. I have a background in nonprofit communications along with some experience in film and television having worked before at the BBC. After moving to Philadelphia from outside of the US, I was looking for interesting places to visit in Philadelphia. After hearing about and visiting the Mütter Museum, I decided it was my goal to eventually work here.
C: Can either of you tell me about the history of the museum and the founders’ intent and vision for establishing it?
Engleman: Before the creation of the museum, there was a society called the College of Physicians of Philadelphia founded in 1787 exclusively for medical professionals. In 1858, two members named Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter and Dr. Isaac Parish had ideas of starting the museum.
The ideas finally fell into place when Mütter donated his teaching collection of 13,000 specimens and 30,000 dollars to found the museum. Around the time of its founding, the museum was a place for people to come and learn about anatomy and physiology. Our goal today continues to be educating the public.
However, the way people perceive the museum can be out of line with our mission. A lot of people may first think of it as a creepy and haunted place. But we hope that when they visit, they take away a different perception and interpretation of our exhibits.
Ladley: Our CEO has also been very open with the way in which we market and display the museum, although we do at times have to be very careful. He does not mind the various motives that drive people to come see the museum, but he hopes that they have a transformative experience when they leave. As long as they learn something about the human body as well as about themselves, our goal has been achieved.
C: What do you think the most popular exhibit at the museum has been?
Engleman: The most visited exhibits would have to be Albert Einstein’s brain and The Soap Lady. Einstein’s exhibit is so popular because he was such a well known character. The Soap Lady is famous for a chemical reaction that miraculously created a self-preserved body.
C: What has been your favorite exhibit thus far?
Engleman: I have two: Chang and Ang, the conjoined twins, as well as Harry Islack, the skeleton of the man with fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP). FOP causes skeletal muscles to calcify, encasing the affected person in a second skeleton.
Ladley: My favorite specimen in the museum is the Jar of Skin. It was recently donated by a girl who lives today with dermatillomania, which is a symptom of OCD and other compulsive disorders. She peeled the skin from the bottom of her feet and put it in a jar to send to the museum. It is a valuable and rare physical manifestation of a mental illness. It is interesting to have this work as a discussion piece that launches conversation in the museum.
C: Do you think that medicine can be viewed as art, or are the two fields independent of one another?
Engleman: I think that medicine can be an art; not always, but I think it can be. Science and art are so finely intertwined that it is hard to separate them. What is considered art is up to the eye of the beholder. For example, someone could look at a heart in a jar and think that it is art, while someone else may just see an organ in a jar. But for me, the art aspect to medicine is diagnosis. There is finesse as well as an art to this process–learning and studying about the person as a whole, rather than a sum of parts can be seen as an artform as well.
C: How do you think the Mütter Museum continues to invite people from different fields to engage in the medical as well as scientific field?
Engleman: Our youth programs aim to engage high school students from Philadelphia in different ways. The goal is to reach students from underserved areas in the city and expose them to different avenues of medicine.
We also have a medical garden outside of the museum that draws in a variety of people. Some audiences are interested in the use of plants in medicine, and others are solely interested in the biome and how it relates to health and medicine.
In a way, we are also encouraging people to take charge of their own health through social media. By showcasing different conditions, we can urge people to get a vaccine or to go see a doctor.