A museum may not seem like the first place that Halloween adventurers would think to visit as a way to commemorate the season…unless they’ve traveled to the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. This medical museum, also known as The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, prides itself on being the “birthplace of American medicine.” This entity remains as one of the oldest medicinal institutions in the United States, originally founded in 1787. The medical oddities that lurk behind the glass cabinets and encase the walls ultimately transform visitors to a dungeon of uncanny medical mysteries. This museum has an aura of spookiness no matter what the season, but even more so around one of the most chilling holidays of the year.
Upon arrival, visitors of the museum are greeted by colossal wooden doors, capturing the charm and essence of the institution’s historical past. The black iron gates single the building out on South 22nd St., adding a hint of mystery as to what outlandish things may hide behind the gates.
Once entering the building, the foyer captures the essence of what the museum probably looked like in its earliest days. The exquisitely polished marble staircase, accompanied by the antique furniture, creates an 18th century ambiance, making visitors feel that this establishment is of true medical ingenuity.
Guests of the museum must first pay the admission fee (general admission-$15, students-$10 with an I.D., and children below age 5-free).
All guests of the museum start in the upper gallery. Glass cases full of different wax models initially welcome visitors to the upper balcony area. These exhibits display horrific skin diseases, illustrating large protruding warts the size of gumballs as well as harsh, crusty patches taking over an entire face. All of these models represent actual skin conditions as ordered in the first American Atlas of Dermatology from 1876.
One of the exhibits in the upstairs balcony displays 139 skulls (all from Europe in the 1870s), which describe the name, age, occupation, and cause of various peoples’ deaths. Children can still enjoy the sites of the different sized skulls without feeling too overwhelmed by the macabre feeling of the exhibit. At the same time, those advanced scholars interested in the medical aspect of the display can appreciate the preservation process, which is fully described in detail in front of the exhibit.
Some of the displays look so bizarre that they seem fictional…one of them being the museum’s infamous Soap Lady. During the early to mid 1800s a deceased woman’s fat turned into a waxy soap-like consistency after being buried in a Philadelphia cemetery. The lady, now a medical oddity, appears mummy-like in the museum and leaves spectators baffled.
The sites of the other displays in the upstairs do not disappoint…one of the most eye-catching being the old-fashioned 19th century birthing chair.
The birthing chair, obviously in antique-like condition, with chocolate brown leather encasing the seating and arm areas, displays an awkwardly oval-shaped cut out of where the child would escape through during birth. The electric chair look of the birthing device leaves a lasting impression on visitors.
While walking through the various rooms in the building, visitors become captivated by the displays of oddly misshapen skeletons of bodies in which the bones grew within the muscles.
The museum displays a rather unusual skeleton of a woman from centuries ago whose ribcage was compressed by years of wearing tight corsets, which oddly enough became a huge staple in the fashion world during the 19th century.
Spectators can next move to the lower gallery, divided into different sections. Visitors can examine the display of the first known Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, represented by a plaster cast of their bodies, along with their preserved livers.
This exhibit, along with the displays of gruesome cysts and disorders that once plagued people in the 19th century, further exemplifies what sort of odd sites lurk within the bowels of the museum.
Anyone ranging from the curious tourist wanting to see the abnormal sites to a student of medicine yearning to learn about the initial onset of certain diseases can enjoy these exhibits. One does not need to carry a medical degree in order to appreciate the shattered skulls from bullets to the head or other peculiarities preserved by the museum.
Appropriately, during the Halloween season the museum finds that it is most fitting to celebrate the Mexican holiday, The Day of the Dead, or el DÃa de los Muertos, which is celebrated in Mexican culture between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2, commemorating those who have passed away. This year the Mutter Museum’s Annual Day of the Dead Festival is on Oct. 27. There will be traditional food, drinks, sugar skull decorating, and other festive activities.
Some employees wear costumes to celebrate the season, along with some visitors who want to tour the spine-chilling displays in full costume.
This museum should top the lists of Halloween adventurers’ who are looking for something that goes beyond the standard haunted house. The displays of real-life oddities create more of a connection between visitors and the darker, eerie medical world.
Eryn Aiello is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies. She can be reached at EA694104@wcupa.edu.