Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages… Come and see the most complete collection of human rarities of the world. Be amazed by more than a thousand human specimens preserved in formaldehyde. Marvel at the rare specimens of Siamese fetuses and other impressive human abnormalities the world has seen. Don’t forget to check out our presidential tumor, but above all, be thrilled by the unique samples of the most brilliant brain humanity has ever seen, the one and only Albert Einstein, only here at the amazing Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.
There’s an undeniable human fascination with death and the macabre since time immemorial. It’s a force in our DNA that compels us to gawk at the strangest things, like accidents, for instance (or what else brought you here today?). But at what point can this, let’s call it weakness, be justified by our morbid human nature and not be seen as one of the most harmful attitudes against others? Something that has always intrigued me is the popularity of freak shows. How could people treat others who didn’t fit their standards of normalcy as inferior beings and sources of entertainment? Yes, we might be shocked today by how these people were literally treated like zoo animals, but have our attitudes changed or evolved from those of past centuries? I don’t think so, and this museum is proof that we’re still the same heartless beings.
As you saw in my circus-like presentation, this museum advertises itself as one of the most complete medical museums in the world with a collection of over 20,000 items, all related the history of medicine, based on our morbid curiosity. So, first, let’s talk a bit about the history to get all the facts. Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter is one of the most famous physicians in American history, mainly because he was one of the first who established some ground rules in the practice of medicine. Up to the nineteenth century, there were tons of doctors who didn’t even have a license to practice, so there weren’t any rules to stick to, even when it came to surgeries and big procedures.
By that time, Philadelphia was one of the states that had a more or less established medical community, but it still had a long way to go. Enter Mütter, a charming and devoted young doctor with great talent and even more ambition. He was known for being one of the few who really cared for the patients in a more humane way rather than just as case studies. Long story short, this guy became very famous when he got interested in treating people with conditions considered abnormalities or rarities. His first case, and probably the most famous one, was the facial reconstruction of a young man who wanted “to be normal so people could see the man and not the monster.” After hours and hours of intricate and meticulous work, young Nathaniel was a new man.
Throughout his career, Mütter was also an avid collector of medical instruments and materials, but his passion soon got a bit more macabre, and he started saving specimens of his patient’s surgeries and removals. By 1863, he had about 1,700 items, so he decided to open his museum for the medical education of the general public. He also donated 30,000 dollars to the museum and instructed that it should all be preserved to show and teach people about the importance of the history of medicine.
Now, it all sounds so nice and interesting, but the real question here is: do we really go to these places to learn? Let’s be honest, though I think that the history of medicine is extremely fascinating (I even wanted to become a doctor at some point), the few times I’ve gone to some of those Body Worlds exhibitions, it hasn’t been due to scientific interest, but rather my own morbid curiosity. The point here is, at what point are our attitudes different from those who attended freak shows to entertain themselves?
Yes, we’re not looking at living people being dehumanized in front of our eyes, but we’re definitely seeing the remains of people who were dehumanized during the process of making them museum displays for people to be “educated.” At the end of the day, what these museums (that exist all over the world) expose aren’t the abnormalities, rarities, oddities (or as you like calling them) of the human body, but our own depraved nature.
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