On October 17 the Mütter Museum launched its first ongoing two-year open town hall meeting. Titled “Postmortem: A Future Visioning Project,” these community meetings are being held by the museum in response to recent changes in how biological specimens, including human bones, skeletons, organs, and tissue samples, are publicly presented and interpreted.
The exploratory program is funded by a $285,500 grant from The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. The first meeting was moderated by Kathleen McLean, director of the consulting firm Independent Exhibitions and winner of the 2018 AAM Distinguished Service to Museums Award, and Monica O. Montgomery, a museum consultant and professor at the University of the Arts.
The opening event focused on the visions, concerns, issues, questions, and future goals of the Mütter Museum. Opportunities were allowed for the audience to give their opinions and views about the current state of the museum as well.
One audience member spoke at length about the personal experience of a friend. “I want to talk about people who have medical issues now, who can come to the museum and feel seen. My friend, the incredible activist, artist, and author, Riva Lehrer, is a queer Jewish woman with spinal bifida who has written and spoken at length about how the first time she came and saw someone who look like her was at the Mütter Museum.” They further explained, “She went her entire life never seeing anybody, not a family member and not someone she passed by on the street who had the same kind of condition and that it changed her life. It finally made her feel seen and that the Mütter museum is an anatomy and medical history museum that lets people be seen and provides historical contexts. Human remains are a way to do that. Trying to retroactively apply standards from today to the past is incongruous.”
Thoughts expressed during the town hall highlighted the disappointment some felt by the actions of current executive director Kate Quinn who, since her appointment in September 2022, has ordered the removal of various items from both the in-house collection and online media.
Donations made by Carol Orzel, who suffered from fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, a genetic condition where connective tissues turn into bone, and by Robert Pendarvis, who donated his original heart after a transplant in 2020 due to acromegaly, a condition that results in the pituitary gland creating enlarged features, were among some of the removed donations that led to disapproval. In one case, a petition by the group, Protect the Mütter, was circulated to remove current leadership.
Dr. Rachael Lance expressed her disappointment in the new direction of the museum. After a 2022 donation of her tumor, affectionally nicknamed “Helga the Destroyer,” she mentioned a shift in mood and a lack of response from staff in regard to the status of her contribution. She said her frustration with the circumstance was compounded by her positive experience with a previous donation and subsequent visit that brought joy in seeing how her contribution was treated with attention and sensitivity and how information was presented to visitors by staff. She attended the October meeting in hopes of being given answers as to why the dramatic shift at the Mütter Museum.
Former employees and participants with existing medical conditions who believe that the museum has changed for the worse were given an opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions. A physician in attendance voiced his concerns. “I am in favor of keeping the exhibits as they are because it gives insight into the days when medicine was a secret and laypeople were not supposed to understand diseases,” he said. “Those days are gone and should be gone. The public and physicians have the right to see these diseases and understand them better. I am absolutely against changing the Mütter from what is an institution that has no parallel in the medical world and should be maintained as it is.” These comments were met with applause from the audience.
Although there was frustration and anger expressed toward the Mütter Museum’s current board of directors, what was noticeable was the lack of vocalized support in favor of removing the materials of individuals whose donations were questionable due to when and how they were collected. Instead, focus centered around the museum’s direction and what can be done to improve it going forward.
After the event, Dr. Julia Haller, chair of the Board of Trustees for the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, responded in an email to a comment made during the meeting suggesting that the board was not participating in the open forums. “This impression is at odds with the facts. The board is fully engaged in the audit and review process. We are delighted by the participation of so many people at the town hall meeting on October 17,” she said. “For the record, there were multiple board members and College of Physicians fellows who attended the meeting either in-person or online. I personally rose to correct this participant’s mistaken impression during the town hall. Interesting, he later asked why the Mütter was closed, and I was able to correct that misinformation as well. So let me say as plainly as possible that the board is fully engaged on these issues.”
Dr. Haller expressed her thoughts on the comments given during the first round of talks. “This is what the college and the museum have been waiting for. We are eager to listen to different viewpoints and work collaboratively to map the museum’s future.”
In response to asking Dr. Haller if the American Museum of Natural History’s decision to remove human remains from their exhibits will affect the direction of the Mütter Museum, she said, “Yes and no. Not with respect to the evolving standards about what constitutes the respectful display of human remains in public-facing museums like the Mütter. These issues are something that all museums must confront if their collections contain human remains, and we are no different in that respect.”
At the end of the event, participants were asked to share their thoughts with each other. Gleaned from conversations overhead, there is a love for the Mütter Museum that has created communities that have conversations about death, such as what was displayed in the online exhibition, Memento Mütter, which was also taken down.
As the Postmortem project continues, it will be valuable to learn how donations past and present will be displayed at the Mütter Museum and whether the current leadership can both acquiesce to the opinions expressed in the town hall meetings while pursuing a more culturally sensitive expression of the museums collections.