Last night, I dropped in at Borderlands Books
some copies of my novel that people had ordered, and I happened on a giant, beautiful photo-boook about Philadelphia's Mütter Museum
The Mütter is an historical pathology museum that began with the private collection of the 19th Century pathologist Dr. Isaac Parrish. The 20,000+ artifacts there are life-changingly weird. They have the conjoined liver of Cheng and Eng, the original Siamese Twins; the corpse of the "soap lady," an obese woman whose fat interated with the lye soil in her pauper's grave, turning her into a giant bar of soap; the twisted skeletons of hydro- and micro-cephalic babies and infants; the skulls of hundreds of suicides with crabbed copperplate phrenological annotations, such as "Note sloping forehead, indicates criminal mentality?"
There are the eaten-away skulls of tertiary syphlitics; the 9'-long colon of a man who took one dump a month until he died in his late 20s; dozens of drawers full of items removed from choking peoples' windpipes ("buttons," "coins," "wedding rings," "safety pins (open)," "safety pins (closed)") und zo weiter.
For all the PT Barnumium present, there is an air of curious dignity and solemnity at the Mütter. People whisper and murmur. The glass cases are both revolting and humbling. Their contents stay with you. Days after your visit, part of you is still at the Mütter -- quieted, humbled, repulsed and attracted.
The Mutter doesn't allow photography, and until recently the only photographic records you could take away with you were a few picture postcards and a calendar. But the Mütter Museum book, with its terse captions and beautiful color plates is a far better collection of photos than anything I could have produced. (Inexplicably, these plates are interspersed with whimsical pictures of Weimaraner dogs posed with exhibits from the museum, shot by William Wegman).
I keep opening this big hardcover and paging through it and getting stuck on this page or that, captured by the Mütter. I haven't been back in five years or so, but it feels like the Mütter's inside me again.