Yes, the Mütter is creepy and the Wagner is spooky, but everybody knows about them (or should). For this issue, we wanted to dig deeper into the city’s well-hidden but curiously vital museum culture. Is that a thing? Not really. But we did manage to stumble upon some pretty weird stuff. The bucket of human teeth. The gun that automatically targeted grave robbers. The stuffed head of a Civil War hero. Lots of dead-eyed dolls. We took notes, snapped photos (lots more at citypaper.net/criticalmass), shooed away a hundred dust bunnies and endured a thousand horrible quaintnesses to bring you this story. We hope you enjoy. And now, this way to the ingress … —Patrick Rapa
Ryerss Museum and Library
Where: Burholme Park, 7370 Central Ave., 215-685-0544, ryerssmuseum.org
The Deal: Once the summer home of the globe-trotting, art-collecting Ryerss family, this majestic manse is now a city-owned museum resting in near obscurity (aka a park in the Northeast). Which is a shame, since it’s crowded with eclectic charms and treasures: Chinese devil statues and ivory spheres, European suits of armor, a dining room frozen in dreary Victorian splendor and a spooky little pet cemetery on the lawn. Likelihood that this place is haunted: 65 percent.
Star Attraction: All hail Snapper, the taxidermied American alligator, locked forever in an upright pose, his mouth agape in a rictus of glee-menace, his stubby arms offering up a tray on which visitors were once implored to place their calling cards. He’s on our cover — and on all the Ryerss’ pamphlets and T-shirts (only $8; yeah, I bought one). —Patrick Rapa
The Museum of Mourning Art at Arlington
Where: 2900 State Road, Drexel Hill, 610-259-5800, arlingtoncemetery.us/museum.asp
The Deal: It’s a beautifully sunny day at Arlington Cemetery (no, not that one), and I’m taking a tour of death and dying along with a woman who makes bracelets out of hair. Actually, it’s a lot more fun than it sounds, thanks to knowledgeable curator Elizabeth Wojcik and my fellow visitor, hair-work artist Lucy Cadwallader, who’s excited to see the largest known collection of mourning jewelry in the country. A phenomenon that began with the death of George Washington (think black ribbons and pins with his silhouette), mourning art became very popular, so much so that “family mourning stores” had popped up in cities like Boston and Philadelphia by the 19th century. Arlington’s collection also houses cemetery gates, clocks, bells, books, mourning attire and a funeral carriage adorned with a hatchment — a diamond-shaped emblem similar to a coat of arms, or, as Cadwallader observed, a sort of pictorial obituary. The symbolism is everywhere (weeping willows, skeletons, birds, lambs, ivy, never-ending paths) and the mythologies are fascinating (people were obsessed with the soul leaving the body, and various attempts to “catch” it). Wojcik is full of stories about the visitors who’ve come through the doors of the Mount Vernon-inspired building that houses this museum: students, historians, artists, medical professionals and a pediatric post-mortem photographer, as well as the terminally ill and the grieving — a testament to the collection’s universal appeal. Look for the museum to expand in the near future: The cemetery site, originally the home of abolitionist Thomas Garrett, has been recognized as a stop on the Underground Railroad and the museum has been acquiring related art and artifacts.
Star Attraction: Installed to ward off grave-robbing medical students in search of the freshest of bodies, the museum’s cemetery gun (circa 1710) is a rather crude, snub-nosed device that was rigged with trip wires and would pivot to fire in the direction of the trespasser. One too many an innocent mourner was killed, however, and the guns were eventually outlawed. —Lori Hill
Kornberg School of Dentistry’s Historical Dental Museum Collection
Where: In the Dr. and Mrs. Edwin Weaver III Historical Dental Museum, 3223 N. Broad St., 215-707-2803, temple.edu/dentistry
The Deal: This isn’t a museum so much as a series of glass cases full of antiquated hooks, drills, extraction keys and bloodletters just down the hall from where actual dentistry is being performed. As in: Patients have to walk past all this stuff on their way in.
Star Attraction: They probably think their coup de grâce is the ridiculous life-size diorama of a Victorian dentist’s office, complete with a smiling, dead-eyed dowager in the patient’s chair, the good doctor in the back brushing some dentures (for her?) and, piped in on an overhead speaker, the sound of teeth being scraped. Not kidding. But no, the simple horrors are often the most effective, and nothing can quite compare to the implied agony of Painless Parker’s bucket of teeth, which is, to be clear, a large wooden bucket about three-quarters full of gnarly, rooty human teeth. —Patrick Rapa
Shrine of St. John Neumann
Where: 1019 N. Fifth St., 215-627-3080, stjohnneumann.org
The Deal: Tucked away from plain sight, and a healthy distance from the grime of Girard Station, rests the actual body of an actual saint. For the devout, this is no secret, as evidenced by the crowd that gathered for noon Mass on a recent Saturday. But for the rest of us sinners, pagans and derelicts, any mention of something happening underneath a church is usually followed by “What time does the first band go on?” But seriously, the bones of St. John Neumann (1811-1860), fourth bishop of Philadelphia and first American citizen to reach sainthood, reside in Northern Liberties beneath St. Peter the Apostle Church. And they’re on display in a glass case. After reaching sainthood status in 1977, Neumann’s remains were exhumed and moved to center stage.
Star Attraction: Obviously, it’s St. John himself. A forensic specialist created a wax-based mask, and new robes were obtained to give it a life-like feel. On the perimeter, stained-glass windows provide CliffsNotes on the man’s life while a de facto exhibit displays ephemera and artifacts. None of this helps you forget the very small body with the facsimile face in the middle of the room. —Chris Brown
Where: 8046 Frankford Ave., 215-335-9500, myinsectarium.com
The Deal: Although it may not look very large, Northeast Philly’s Insectarium has boasted the nation’s largest insect collection since it was founded in 1992 by ex-exterminator Steve Kanya. Besides all the pinned-up specimens, the museum has a host of interactive features like a honeybee hive, a glow-in-the-dark scorpion and info stations focusing on bug minutiae (match the insect with the sound, stuff like that). The exhibits are worn-looking and could use some sprucing up, but that’s to be expected, since the main demographic is visiting school groups. The target audience can often be found squealing at the living exhibits and snacking on cheddar-flavored worms.
Star Attraction: No doubt, it’s the Cockroach Kitchen. In the center of the museum’s main room is what appears to be a serene-looking sink and set of cabinets inside a large glass case. Then the staff sprays some water inside, and innumerable cockroaches slowly emerge until the display looks like a Fear Factor challenge. —Jodi Bosin
The Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library
Where: 4278 Griscom St., 215-289-6484, garmuslib.org