July 1825, 1996
Not With My Mutter You Don't
Not With My Mutter You Don't
No more Letterman.
No more calendar.
Is the College of Physicians dulling the edge of its famously quirky Mutter Museum?
By Margit Detweiler
Maybe it was the cover photo on the last Mutter Museum calendar that sealed its fate. The image was a wax model of a child's head showing syphilitic leukoplakia of the tongue the eyes shrouded by a cloth, the tongue bubbling red, the head floating in a jar. It's a disturbing, elegant, evocative, grotesque, even beautiful work of art.
But whether it was this particular picture, or the equally striking photos by respected photographers within it, the Mutter Museum's award-winning calendar won't have a '97 edition. The nationally distributed calendar, featuring images from the Mutter's collection of medical oddities, has been killed off by the new administration at the College of Physicians. A private association of medical doctors, the college owns and operates the 150-year-old Mutter Museum, which is housed in the college's headquarters at 19 S. 22nd St.
"First of all, [the calendar] is an outdated reflection of who we are," explains the college's Director of Public Affairs Dick Levinson, "and doesn't present a good understanding of what we care about. If we're going to be coming to people and talking about [the College of Physicians] and getting them to focus on the important things we're doing, we can't simultaneously be involved in peddling a calendar which, to a lot of people, really smacks of the strange and bizarre."
The Mutter? Strange and bizarre? But that's why people love it, right?
Maybe, but that's just the image the College of Physicians wants to escape from.
Last fall the college's board of directors hired a new management team: Executive Director Mark Micozzi, an alternative medicine specialist and Penn med school alum, and Levinson, whose position of public affairs director was created for him. Both came from the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., where Micozzi was founding director and Levinson was PR director.
The vision of the new crew is topromote the College of Physicians as a source of modern healthcare information, and to change a public profile which they feel has been tainted by the Mutter's pop-cult status as a hall of horrors.
To accomplish this, they've decided to dim the Mutter's spotlight a bit. In addition to ditching the calendar, the administration won't allow the museum's charismatic director, Gretchen Worden, to appear on the David Letterman show anymore (Worden used to trot out giant gallstones and the like to shock the late-night host). They also suggest there might be revisions of the more bizarre, possibly "offensive" aspects of the Mutter's collection.
Already, a bright new health exhibit is being offered in the college's Cadwalader gallery, which visitors walk through on their way to the Mutter. And a hands-on health library, the C. Everett Koop Community Health Information Center(which the librarian boasts has almost nothing in it over five years old), has been established in the building as well.
Levinson refused to grant City Paper an interview with Worden about how the museum might be affected. But that reluctance begs the question: What's happening to Philadelphia's Mutter? Is this national treasure's health at stake? Will it be transformed, as some critics speculate, into a staid "HMO-like museum" something like the one Micozzi tried to create in D.C.?
Could the cancellation of the calendar be just a symptomof something more serious?
Stroll into the Mutter Museum for the first time and you're sure to encounter something you've never seen before, and something that will stir your innards (perhaps even that five-foot-long brown and veined colon).
There's the artful: the gallery of injured eyes, the pickled slices of wrinkly brain, the multicolored placentas.
The curious: the livers of Siamese twins Chang and Eng (the conjoined men who managed to father 21 kids) and an in-depth exhibit on Siamese Twins that wraps around the top of the stairs.
The famous: the tumor removed from President Grover Cleveland's jaw, the bladder stones removed from Chief Justice John Marshall by Philip Syng Physick ("the father of American surgery"), a piece of John Wilkes Booth's thorax.
The historic: With its old wooden exhibit cabinets and hard-to-read labels, the Mutter recreates the milieu of a 19th-century museum.
And the awesome: The wall of 139 skulls collected by Joseph Hyrtl of Vienna some with bulletholes, some mummified, others less dramatic illustrates the differences among various ethnic groups of central and eastern Europe.
The Phila. Convention and Visitors Bureau has consistently listed the Mutter as a sight to see in Philadelphia.
"There are two chief reasons the Mutter is important to Philadelphia tourism," says R.C. Staab of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Number one, it gets great publicity. When we take writers to the Mutter they are inevitably fascinated and often write great stories. Also, a third of all our major meetings at the Convention Center are healthcare-related. Doctors like to have healthcare sites in the city as a special place to visit for their conventioneers. The Mutter, along with the new medical-related exhibits at the College of Physicians, offers one of the best places in the city."
And, he adds, "I love Gretchen, too."
It was Thomas Dent Mutter,a professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College, who "determined to found a pathological museum" in 1858. He offered his own collection of anatomical specimens and modelsto the College of Physicians, a private medical society founded in 1787 by 24 of the leading physicians in Philadelphia, including Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Mutter wanted the museum to "serve at once the cause of science and humanity" and to act as a teaching college for medical students. He died in 1859, four years before the museum was actually opened but the college fulfilled his dream. Since then the museum has continued to acquire various pathological specimens and historical medical instruments. Very recently, the museum's wax model collection added 100 new historical models to its collection, bumping the total to 276. The newer models show such conditions as breast cancer and gouty toe.
There's no denying that looking dead-on at a decomposed nose might make some squirm as evidenced by the chorus of "ewww"s from touring school kids, who ask questions as much as they screech. But those involved directly with the Mutter have long tried to shrug off the notion that its specimens are somehow grotesque; it's simply science. The history of medicine inevitably includes the gruesome: bloodletting leeches, babies who've died from mishandled forceps, gangrenous ulcerations of the lip left untreated.
For fine art photographers, these curiosities provide a wealth of material.
Massachusetts-based photographer Rosamond Purcell, who is currently working on a book on the history of anomalies, says she's long been intrigued by the Mutter's old-fashioned displays.
"I think it's a riot that they have all those wax specimens in jars," says Purcell. "It's sort of an artifact that needn't be. I also love the phrenology... [The skulls] are like little graveyards an instant biography."
Laura Lindgren, a New York-based book designer and publisher of Blast Books, volunteered to create a calendar four years ago to showcase some of the incredible photography taken at the Mutter.
"Basically what I wanted was to make a very beautiful product that would increase awareness of that museum nationally and internationally which it did."
Lindgren estimates the calendar made over $10,000 a year for the college. She did most of the work, she says sales, publicity, mailings to individuals [about 1,000], stuffing envelopes all on a volunteer basis. Mutter staff involvement was minimal.
An independent venture, a relatively pain-free source of income wouldn't most non-profits welcome such a project? Especially the College of Physicians, which, says Micozzi, had to eliminate eight positions in the last year to combat a running deficit (now "under control").
But Micozzi claims the calendar simply broke even and was costing the staff time and money.
"We only have 45 people working in the college, most of them working in the library. It was taking too much time and too much attention."
And Levinson sums it up this way.
"I think it probably did make some money for the college, but that's not what really matters. Making money is not why this institution exists."
Micozzi says the college's higher admission fee ($5 for adults) and a gift shop (currently a small cabinet by the reception desk featuring key chains and pencils) should provide increased funds in the future.
"The college's endowment can only support a certain level of operation. We do want to raise outside money, but I think people aren't going to give money to support an operating deficit."
Whether or not the calendar was a moneymaking endeavor, all parties agree it attracted more visitors.
In its first year, 1993, Lindgren said the calendar sold about 3,500 copies. She says figures she obtained from the museum for marketing reasons show that in 1992, before the first publication of the calendar, visitorship totaled around 5,000. According to Micozzi, 18,000 people visited the college in 1995.
"Sure [the growth in visitorship] was because of the promotional efforts behind the Mutter," said Micozzi."You've cultivated a certain image and a certain audience. Now that we're going to the weekend hours and expanding the facilities [the Koop center and the visiting gallery shows], I think we're going to double or triple our numbers."
But the Mutter's publicity barrage got those numbers up in the first place. Isn't that something to bank on?
"I witnessed the kind of publicity about the Mutter museum from a distance," he observed, "and I'll tell you it's not the kind of thing we would have ever done at the National Museum consciously. The college is about life. It's not about death."
Lindgren said she started to suspect that the calendar was doomed last fall when the Micozzi/Levinson team was hired. She recalled a conversation with Levinson about the calendar, who she said seemed to find the 1996 cover image distasteful.
"Essentially they don't understand that kind of artwork. It's like they just don't get it. When he looks at that calendar he says things to me like, 'Well, how can we go out and seek out congressional funding? Congressmen would just see a bunch of body parts...' I picked this image for the cover for several reasons. It is provocative. It is truly in your face and that is what bothers them about it. When I put this calendar in stores, I have to be in your face. If I go subtle, we're dead in the water."
"These guys don't have respect for the museum that's what's creepy."
"We feel that we have to be clear in terms of what our goals are," says Levinson, "and that calendar sends the wrong message."
The message Micozzi and Levinson would like to send is crystal clear when you browse through the bright and shiny exhibit Say AHHH!: Examining America's Health in the new gallery at the College of Physicians. Adjacent to the gloomier Mutter Museum, the exhibit is all clean lines and interactive devices. You can spin a colorful wheel (which suggests you "Take a whirl on the wheel of treatment!") to find out about health risks. You can peruse antiquated and quack medical instruments (from the Mutter collection) like the electro-shocker Master Violet Ray. Kids and adults are encouraged to jot down their thoughts about smoking, safe sex and AIDS.
"It used to be to see the Mutter Museum you sort of physically had to go to the very back of our building, and then go down. It was almost a sense of going into the dungeon," says Levinson. "Now everyone who goes into the museum goes through our new gallery. It's really sort of a package."
(Micozzi also describes Mutter as a "dungeon" and suggests that the new design of the building so that people don't have to snake around a stairway into the dark will improve security.)
The college has also been offering free lectures and panel discussions through their Public Health and Preventative Medicine Program on issues such as "Epidemiology of Murder in Philadelphia," and they've started an "Adopt-a-School" program through which College members serve as mentors to kids from the Abigail Vare and Simon Gratz schools.
"The museum has been around forever, and I think it does a good job of indicating how people have viewed the human body through time," says Levinson. "And it does a good job of indicating how the 19th-century museum functioned. But medicine and science in particular is an area where things are changing rapidly. Unless you have the capacity to talk about what's going on in those fields today you're really not doing the job you're not meeting the need."
"First and foremost we are an educational institute," says Levinson as we talk at a round table at Koop CHIC (the acronym for the Community Health Information Center "Chick" is C. Everett Koop's nickname).Director of Public Services Andrea Kenyon and Reference Librarian Mary Laskow are also present. Hundreds of pamphlets on various diseases and health issues line the walls. An interactive station is set up for free on-line access, and bookshelves offer a library on self-help health subjects.
Though no one was actually using the library during City Paper's two recent visits to Koop CHIC, Laskow claims that about 100 people a week use the facility. No doubt, it's a potentially important service to Philadelphia and one in keeping with the vision of Micozzi, the author of the first textbook on alternative medicine for medical students, Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
"There's been an increasing emphasis on self-care and guided self-cure," says Micozzi, "all the things alternative medicine talks about. If we're more active in preserving our own health, we can be healthier."
But will offering health resources to the communityreally put the College of Physicians on the map? Levinson hopes so.
"If you go back two years or 10 years, the chances are that the only thing that people knew about the College of Physicians was probably the Mutter... One of the things Dr. Micozzi wants to do, with the support of the College Council and the Fellows, is to return to the earliest roots of the college in terms of our goals and plans and activities. The college is more than 200 years old and still not one of the better-known institutions in Philadelphia. We're really attempting to change that."
But how can brochures and pamphlets compete with, say, the Chevalier Jackson collection hundreds of metal files filled with meticulously organized items that people have swallowed, from coins to fishhooks to dried meat? Not to mention a reputation that has spawned several independent websites and fans across the country.
One museum observer, who preferred not to be named, said, "You don't leave an array of deformed fetuses to go read a pamphlet on the dangers of sharing needles. It's a flawed concept."
As we tour the Say AHHH! exhibit, we pass a blank TV screen that's supposed to be showing images of doctors and medicine as portrayed by the electronic media The Three Stooges, The Road To Wellville, Star Trek. Unfortunately, as Levinson explains why visiting exhibits like this one are so crucial, the TV's on the blink.
"We're addressing current issues in health and medicine instead of presenting the same thing in a static, unchanging position for years on end. I think at least every five years people expect to see something new [at a museum]. That is their experience at other cultural institutions and we ought to be a part of that."
But it's the experience they've had at other institutions that makes the Mutter the obvious draw.
Michelle Hwan, a med student from Ohio State, is perusing the exhibit of Siamese twins in the Mutter. "I like this stuff," she says, "but I'm a med student, so of course I do. That stuff in there [the new gallery] seems like it's more for kids. A friend of mine was here the other day and told me I had to come see this place. When I first walked in, I thought [Say AHHH!] was all there was, and I thought, this is it?"
"We didn't even check out the new gallery, we just walked right in here," says Kelly Dando, who with his two 20-something friends is rummaging through the drawers of the Chevalier Jackson exhibit. "That [new] stuff is just like Franklin Institute stuff. You can see that kind of thing anywhere basically."
"Of course [the Mutter] might not be right for a five-year-old," says his friend, Fred Blinn.
"But if people find stuff offensive they shouldn't come in here," adds Miech Godderie.
The offensiveness question is another reason the new administration gets queasy when they talk about the Mutter. At the heart of this debate are displays like the "soap lady": a woman in a mummified state, mouth opened in a scream, whose body was transformed into a soapy substance through a process called adipocere.Discovered 100 years ago in Old City and donated to the museum by college member and anatomy professor Joseph Leidy, the soap lady and her unique conditionhave been the subject of much scientific scrutiny. But now she is being looked at from a different,some might say more politically correct perspective.
Levinson referred to the the exhibit as potentially inappropriate.
"We are taking a hard look at things like the soap lady. Should she be there at all? Should it be there with modifications? Those are the sorts of things we're talking about."
Micozzi expanded on these concerns.
"First of all, calling it 'soap lady' could be seen as offensive on the face of it," he says. "And you are displaying a human being, the entire body. We also have issues about conservation and curation. It takes effort in terms of the physical preservation of biological materials."
Other displays may have to be adjusted to accommodate the next exhibit in the new gallery, When The President Is The Patient, which will focus on Grover Cleveland, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson three presidents who confronted major health challenges in office. In order to make room for the presidential show, some areas of the Mutter may have to be altered. The mezzanine level, which the museum shares with the gallery and Koop CHIC,will probably be "updated," says Micozzi. The lower level will probably remain exactly the same.
There's a rumor that some displays, like the wall of 139 skulls and the plaster cast of Siamese twins Chang and Eng, are headed for the closet.
"There islegislation that we didn't have 10 years ago regarding the display of human remains and whether skulls are medical specimens or whether they represent people," says Micozzi. "I went through this in Washington, that not only skulls be taken off display but that they be returned to their rightful owners."
But Lindgren prefers to see the skull exhibit as scientific history.
"I don't know if the doctor who assembled that intended any disrespect or any respect," said Lindgren. "What I find kind of odd here is that they're injecting some emotion into this material which is very possibly not inherent in the material."
According to Jane Bedno, director of the graduate program in museum exhibit and design planning at the University of the Arts, the display of human remains in museums is seen as unacceptable these days only when it's culturally or ethnically loaded.
"A museum is more likely to use a casting of a skeleton than what they used to use, which might have been actual human skeletons bought from India. But there's not been any move to take mummies out of museums."
For Micozzi, keeping the original context of the displaysis important, but regard for contemporary sensitivities may outweigh historical accuracy.
"When the Mutter was redone 10 years ago there was a conscious attempt to turn the clock back. That's a very valid goal and the Pew Foundation supported that. I doubt the Pew Foundation would support something like that today."
Pew spokesperson Deidra Lyngard confirmed the Pew Charitable Trusts did fund renovations at the Mutter in 1982 and 1984, awarding a total of $400,000. But Lyngard said she didn't have enough information about current developments at the museum to comment on support in the future.
This isn't the first timeMicozzi has tried to rework a museum or attracted controversy for doing so.
In the mid-'80s, he was hired by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) in Washington, D.C. to rethink the museum's direction. (He came with a background in anthropology and medicine, not in historical collections.) Under his leadership, specimens were reorganized for researchers' use, records were computerized, and exhibits on AIDS, heart disease and mental illness were installed. A non-profit organization founded by then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop spearheaded efforts to move the museum from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center back to its former home on the Mall and rename it the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
Not everyone was happy with the new direction. In a 1993 article, the Washington City Paper (no relation to this paper) published a story by Alan Green called "No Guts, No Glory," which Levinson calls a "hatchet job" (and which made him leery of talking with another alternative weekly). Describing the changes at the AFIP, Green wrote, "The grotesque icons have steadily been removed from public exhibit. Increasingly, the inanimate organs are being replaced with high-tech displays about health and nutrition, as the institute exorcises its chamber-of-horrors image in preparation for its return to the Mall."
The piece suggests that pressure from the Department of Defense's Office of the Inspector General in the '80s contributed to the retooling. Because "the museum had become irrelevant to issues of public health, the IG recommended to the DOD that the museum be dramatically improved or simply shut down," wrote Green.
[Ironically, Gretchen Worden was part of a task force organized by the AFIP in 1983 to determine the direction of its museum including what kind of director they should hire. She was not directly involved in the decision to select Micozzi, however.]
Alan Green's reaction to the changes at AFIP was so eloquently unsympathetic it's no wonder Levinson was so upset.
"The old and new work at such cross-purposes that everything seems anachronistic," wrote Green. "More than ever before, what stands out are the fetuses, the gourd-sized hairball, and the other novelties the side-show relics that museum officials have tried to downplay. But in this sterile environment of government-issue glass cases, even some of these incredible specimens lose their horrible fascination. They're simply there unannotated, unexplained, forlorn."
In the article, Micozzi defended his position by saying, "Our museum is going from the 19th century to the 21st century. We almost skipped the 20th."
"The plans announced [for the Nat. Museum of Health and Medicine]were very much on the science center mold," says Bedno of University of the Arts. "Many people, me included, felt that would destroy what made the museum fascinating."
But Micozzi wasn't able to create the museum he wanted, says Bedno.
"I think he made plans, but I don't know if [the National Museum] will ever come to be in that form. One of the problems is the proposed plans were made very highhandedly without much attention to the constituency. The fondness for the old museum is very widely shared in D.C. Part of the lure of the Smithsonian is the whole tradition of the nation's attic... But [the National Museum] is still just a museum that hasn't figured out what it is."
A recent phone call to the museum, which is still housed in the Army Medical Center, bore out Bedno's point. PR Director Chris Kelly referred to the museum as the "AFIP" its old name.
Congress never approved the $17-20 million for the museum's new home. That's one of the reasons Micozzi finally left Washington. "Things were at a standstill," he says. "Washington is a dysfunctional bureaucracy."
"I know he resigned quite suddenly to take on the role [at the College of Physicians]," says Kelly. "He's always been passionate about his beliefs and I think he felt frustrated that he couldn't accomplish what he set out to do."
Micozzi already felt positively disposed toward the College of Physicians. He was a member, and had served on the college's Board of Advisors.
"It's meant a lot to me from my first week of med school in Philadelphia. It was a great opportunity for me at a critical time in our society in terms of the role of the physician and the enduring values it represents."
He replaced then-Director John O'Donnell (who Micozzi says went on sabbatical to write a book), and brought in Levinson to fill the new position of public affairs director.
The president of the college, Alfred Fishman, and other members of the boardtold him his museum concept sounded like a great idea.
"They said, 'Why don't we do it in Philadelphia where we have a much more favorable situation with the interest of Senator Arlen Specter?'" remembers Micozzi. "'With such a large medical industry, the new Philadelphia Health Care Congress, the new convention center... this is where a National Health Museum ought to be.'"
But why would the board want to hire a man who, after 10 years directing a similar, if much larger institute, couldn't get this same concept off the ground?
One observer cited Dr. C. Everett Koop, who visited his namesake community center only a few weeks ago, as the driving force behind Micozzi's hiring. Perhaps when he realized that the revitalization of the museum in D.C. wasn't going to happen, he looked for the next best thing. (Dr. Koop wason vacation at press time and unavailable for comment.)
Lewis W. Bluemle Jr., former president of the College of Physicians (1980-81) and of Thomas Jefferson University, headed the search committee that selected Micozzi.
"[MiCozzi's] personal qualifications stood out," says Bluemle. "He is a bright guy with a penetrating mind who knows an awful lot abut the past but is really focused on the future."
Bluemle seems to suggest that if funding for a national museum of health and science didn't happen in D.C., it still might happen in Philadelphia.
"If the Constitution Center gets underway with Pew's help, it seems to me there could be a ripple effect... Marc is sort of an infectious leader that, if you get Arlen Specter and a few other folks behind it, could get that done."
And how does he feel about the calendar being discontinued?
"Gretchen Worden's project? It didn't kind of appeal to me, but I've got to hand it to Gretchen for doing something to publicize the museum. I think it [was valuable] in its time, but I think that time has long since passed, and our challenge now is how can we make the museum most useful, rather than a repository of just interesting stuff."
The threat of change at the Mutter has shaken up no one more than the artists who worked on the calendar for the last four years. Rosamond Purcell, who took the 1996 cover photograph, says the idea of sanitizing the Mutter's image is "silly."
"In this country people are squeamish about the wrong things," says Purcell. "The Mutter Museum is the most elegant 19th-century anatomical collection in the United States and to have it not be honored and recognized is ludicrous. I don't think people realize how precious and rare that history is. It has not, by any means, been given enough play."
But UArts' Bedno sees some of this discussion as a red herring that the calendar's demise might not signal a new regime and the controversy might be uncalled for. She says she can sympathize with the physicians and the people who back the institution for not caring to have it represented certain ways.
"It may be that some of the stranger aspects of the current identity, the calendar included, bother the board and the membership and it may not be the director. If that limits artists' freedom, then so be it."
Still, she allows that there might be another factor in the de-emphasizing of the Mutter: jealousy.
Lindgren puts it this way.
"This place ain't big enough for Gretchen and Marc Micozzi,and not from Gretchen because she is just not built that way," says Lindgren. "I think there's a little bit of, well, Gretchen has had her glory in the public eye and now Marc wants to have his."
Levinson called our repeated requests to speak with Gretchen Worden "unreasonable."
But it's not so unreasonable when you consider that the much-beloveddirector of the Mutter is, perhaps single-handedly, the reason the Mutter is so well-known today.
"She is the Mutter," says one source. "She put that place on the map."
And it's not so unreasonable when you consider that she'd probably have something to say about changes in the museum she's the director of, and has worked at, for 20 years.
For his part, Micozzi says Worden has "a great knowledge of the museum and a lot of institutional memory and knowledge of the community and how things run."
"But the college is a different place than it was one year ago and certainly 20 years ago. We are a fairly small institution with a very big mission, which means you've got to focus on those areas where you're unique. The good news is the museum is one of those things where we're the best, but I think it does mean changing one's perspective. Twenty years ago the college was kind of a loose holding company with a historical institute that did its own thing, a library that did its own thing and a museum that did its own thing. But that's not what the governances wanted. My job has been to make the most of those things, which has involved getting Koopto provide the profile of the community center and making the visiting exhibit permanent, but it means we're becoming kind of leaner. And it means people can't be out there doing their own thing."
Still, doing its own peculiar, fascinating, gruesome and yes, educational thing is what has made the Mutter such a treasured part of the Philadelphia cultural scene.
"Philadelphia is known for its group of historic-collections museums, and Mutter is one of them," says Bedno. "My worries about the Mutter [are] that, given its location, given its space, given its tradition, that it probably lacks some of the basic components it needs to turn into a contemporary interactive health center. The quirkiness is part of their, really Philadelphia's reputation. The Wagner, the Mercer, the Mutter and a couple of smaller institutions share a quality that Philadelphia has of being quirky and historic and interesting. I would be very careful of losing that."
Bedno adds, "If museums never have anything which arouses people's emotions in any way, people will simply stop coming."