The Mütter and More: Why We Need to be Critical of Medical Museums as Spaces for Disability
Dr Aparna Nair
For a while now, I’ve been observing various public debates about museums, disability, ethics, repatriation and representation, on both sides of the pond. And my mind always goes back to Nooki and Hannai’s child, or as the Royal College of Surgeons’ (RCS) Museum’s online catalogue sees fit to call him, Object RCSHC/P 1535. Also listed in this catalogue entry is the supposed “owner” of this disabled child’s skull: John Hunter, the British surgeon and anatomist, who died in 1793 (1).
Ten years before Hunter himself died, thousands of miles away in eastern India, Nooki and Hannai’s child was born into an agricultural community. The child’s life was brief and painful. When he was born, his appearance reportedly scared the attending midwife so much that she dropped the child into the fire, leaving him burned and scarred. His family was poor, and exhibited their child on the streets, where he drew the attention and interest of European observers. When the young boy died of a snakebite, representatives of the East India Company in Bengal asked his parents for the disabled child’s body. Nooki and Hannai categorically refused and went on to conduct death/mourning rituals for their child, and buried the body, as was their custom. Going against their stated wishes, employees of the Company dug up this child’s body, decapitated it, stripped it of flesh, and eventually sent the skull to London, where it became a part of the Hunterian collection currently housed in the RCS.
Today, even though the RCS recently underwent an ethical “review,” a photograph of his stolen remains is on digital display, although the skull itself is not on display. Worse, the child’s digital afterlives extend well beyond the museum: photos of his skull are featured on several websites and forums dedicated to the macabre, the “weird,” and the unusual. No one familiar with the dark histories of medical museums would be surprised by this story. The story of Nooki and Hannai’s child is emblematic of so many disabled colonial subjects across the world, whose non-normative bodies had, in life or death, drawn the attention of physicians, soldiers, missionaries, and administrators of colonial establishments across time and space, and eventually were taken or stolen, from graves, ancestral sites, tombs, and battlefields (2). Whether these individuals or their families had consented or not, disabled people all over the world were reduced to objects/technologies to be studied and displayed for science and/or entertainment. But what right do we have to disregard the explicitly stated wishes of Nooki and Hannai and continue to exploit their child’s disability for science? What right do we have to deny his own right to rest, according to the customs of his community, on the riverbank where he was buried on that night so long ago, all so we can claim to use his remains to “educate?” Why does a medical museum get to dictate the post-mortem fates of this disabled child?
To the historian of medicine in me, of course, medical museums like the RCS, the Wellcome, and the Mütter are uncomfortably interesting, both as sources, and as catalyst for my thinking and teaching. But as someone born and raised in India, I also find myself increasingly uneasy in these spaces. I know from my own work that medical museums like these are built on eighteenth and nineteenth century collections of bodies and body parts, I know that the histories of medical museums are inextricable from the wider histories of Empire. To ignore, diminish, or deny these pasts when we discuss medical museums is to contribute to the exploitation, depredations, and colonial violence many communities across the world have experienced for centuries. In the past several years, there have been real shifts in how museums more broadly are responding to ethical questions around origins and repatriations. For instance, it was a welcome change to many when, in 2022, the Wellcome Trust closed its Medicine Man exhibit because it perpetuated “a version of medical history that is based on racist, sexist, ableist theories and language.” But for some, this change was an act of “cultural vandalism,” that ignored the spirit of its founder, Henry Wellcome. Certainly, there are echoes of this outrage in the tone, ideas, and content of the public discourse around the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia in recent months.
The history of the Mütter is worth mentioning here, mostly because it was an institution that began with physicians in mind, and not disabled people. In 1787, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia was established as a private medical society. In 1858, Philadelphia surgeon Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-1859) donated his personal “pathological collection” to the College with instructions on establishing a permanent museum (3). Together with donations from fellows of the college, the early Mütter included “gallstones, monsters and plaster casts,” as well as bones, “wet specimens,” and paintings, and came to include other objects and ephemera. Although the Mütter Museum started life as a teaching space for medical students, its purpose changed over the decades, and it was opened to the public. Since the 1980s, curators like Gretchen Worden and others have actively reshaped the museum into a “Disturbingly Informative” space for in person and online exhibits on medicine, illness, and disability (4). The Mütter does a great deal of public medical history programming, and collaborates with scientists (5). The museum also has notably collaborated with disabled people (for e.g.: Harry Eastlake, Carol Orzel, and Robert Pendarvis) to build exhibits displaying rare conditions (6). What is without question is that the museum has a devoted and committed fan base, who love its aesthetic and design, and visit frequently.
Earlier this year, the Mütter temporarily took down its online exhibits and resources while they conducted a review. It caused an uproar, spawning sometimes vicious social media debates and various articles. Online advocates against the changes at the Mütter have urged the museum to retain what they saw as its unique and “weird” character, to be more collaborative and open about review processes, and go so far as to suggest that the Mütter’s actions were contributing to public ignorance of disease and disability. Disabled advocates of the museum also spoke up, arguing that they had used the space to make sense of their own bodies, to see reflections of their experiences and selves in the exhibits. But perhaps what I have found truly distressing in the discourse around the Mütter Museum from many advocates is the unquestioned implication that they have some kind of “right” to use the bodies and body parts there. To say I have mixed feelings about this is an understatement. On the one hand, yes, public discourse on disability is routinely ableist, and museums can change the conversations on disability with sensitive and thoughtful exhibits. And I agree that it is important for those exhibits which were freely and actively donated to the museum by disabled people, like Henry Raymond Eastlake’s skeleton, to continue to be exhibited. But the Mütter has historically often been neither reflective nor sensitive in the ways it represented disability.
For decades, it has deliberately cultivated a reputation for the “slightly disturbing,” “disturbingly informative,” and weird. An examination of the museum’s online presence reveals how people who are fascinated by the macabre and the strange come there specifically to look at the bodies on display there, many of whom were disabled (7). Death, and the disabled dead, at the Mütter often been drafted into becoming a backdrop for a particular aesthetic. The museum has become a regular in Philly’s Halloween celebrations, anchoring disability and difference to “horror.” But how useful it is to frame disability thus? To present disability and difference as a backdrop for Halloween, or as a place to find “morbid curiosities”? Does this truly contribute to a nuanced and careful understanding of sickness and disability as part of the spectrum of human existence?
Equally problematic are some of the items which were sold through the museum gift shop. Take the introduction of the deeply disturbing soap-on-a-rope in the shape of the “Soap Lady” in 2010, and the fact that the Mütter has been selling “conjoined twin cookie cutters” since 2009 (although I have no idea if they still sell them). I do know that as recently as 2018, the Mütter celebrated Christmas with crowd-sourced ornaments, which included a “gingerbread man conjoined at the head” and hair wreaths made of actual human remains (8). Museums can indeed be potentially transformative and influential spaces for the cultural construction of ideas about disability, but the Mütter has, for a long time, unquestionably contributed to the enfreakment and commercialization of disability in public spaces.
Beyond this clear enfreakment of disability and difference in cultures of display, we must perceive medical museums like the Mütter through the critical lenses of history, and power/Empire. What are the Mütter’s connections to Empire, you might ask? The museum is built around a collection that grew out of nineteenth century physicians’ pathological collections, physicians who were working in conjunction with colonial administrations all over the world participated in a global trading network of human remains and entire bodies, which were often collected precisely because they represented the racialized and colonized “other.” Let’s consider the much-celebrated and often-publicized Hyrtl skull collection, based on the acquisitions of the Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtl (9). The Hyrtl collection is often distinguished from others because it was collected predominantly from Europe, but a brief examination of the catalogue suggests that it was often poor, sick, disabled people whose skulls were “collected.” In addition to the skulls of people who died of sickness or by suicide, were executed or murdered, Joseph Hyrtl acquired the skulls of those who died in hospitals, poorhouses and asylums, but were also taken from graves and catacombs. The Hyrtl collection also includes people whose connections to Empire are clear: take, for example, the case of Rai-Tao-Si. In the catalogue, he is described as a “famous Siamese criminal guilty of many atrocious crimes. Captured with ten of his band at Batavia. Hung in the castle of Samarang.” How else do we imagine that Hyrtl “acquired” Rao-Tao-Si’s skull, if not through the networks and pathways established, facilitated and powered by the violence of Empire? Batavia, after all, was a Dutch colonial city in what is today Indonesia. And Rai-Tao-Si was not alone: in the College’s own catalogue of skulls, I found entries for a skull from the Tomb of the Kings in Sakkarah, Egypt, the skull of Ebu Djeb, a “Maronite Libanon” man from Syria, and the skull of a murderer executed in Hong Kong.
And it was not only skulls: in 1874, the museum had also acquired a large collection of placentae assembled by Hyrtl, which were mounted on black boards. In her book Gretchen Worden noted that “Some of these specimens are from women of non-European backgrounds, such as Maori, Malay and Hottentot; others are from abnormal foetuses, with clubfoot, hemicephaly (partial brain development) and anencephaly (absence of brain development) (10). Hyrtl himself noted that: “Placentae of strange races of men, to become possessed of which is no easy task, are added as curiosities.” Once again, how else would Hyrtl have acquired these placentae if not for his participation in the global trade in body parts in the nineteenth century, facilitated and demanded by Empire? Defenders of the Hyrtl collection appear to argue that Joseph Hyrtl’s intentions to challenge phrenology and scientific racism somehow obviate the violence through which they were collected (11).
More recently, several press stories have also confirmed that Indigenous people’s remains were in the possession of the museum (although not on display), and the Mütter is reported to be working on repatriation (12). A simple look at the catalogue confirms that the museum (at least at one time) did indeed possess the remains of Indigenous people across the world. Aside from the Hyrtl collection, the museum had also “acquired” the skull of an Indigenous Hawaiian, a skull taken from the Crow Reservation in Montana, a skull of a “Sioux Indian prisoner, who died at Rock island,” and an “Aboriginal skull” from Mallicollo (Malakula) in modern day Vanuatu, taken from an effigy erected to honor the ancestors. I will freely admit that I do not know if any of these are still in the possession of the museum, but they clearly are still reported in the online catalogue.
When it comes to the Hyrtl collection and other remains, people like Anna Dhody have suggested that despite the ethical issues that swirl around them, why not “use them” to educate the living? The transformative Mütter curator Gretchen Worden was much more trenchant in an interview in 2000: “It is a fine thing if you can be as useful or even more useful after death than you were before. People should be proud of the fact that their bodies can continue to serve humanity.” Since the recent controversy around the Mütter, other vocal advocates have repeated this framing, and also offered the additional argument that we would be consigning these dead to “a second death” by not using their bodies. I find this uncritical entitlement to the dead deeply disturbing. For one, death, the dead, and dead bodies do not have the same meanings in different cultures—what is acceptable to you might be a profound violation to someone else. We definitely do not have an unquestionable right to consume the dead as museum exhibits. Additionally, we should not brush aside concerns about the problematic ethics of collecting in the past by stating that it was the “ethics of the time.” Charles Byrne and Nooki and Hannai are proof that many people in the past indeed did not want their bodies to be harvested, and displayed; and actively tried to prevent that post-mortem fate.
It is not enough to shrug off critiques by saying that ethics and standards were “different” in the past, or that we cannot establish the provenance of human remains. It is not enough to just forge ahead and display those remains when we know that there is no ethical way that they were acquired. Further, when we talk about museums like the Hunterian or the Mütter solely in terms of what they offer us today as “education” or “entertainment,” we reproduce colonial logics for appropriating and retaining and using artifacts and physical remains. It doesn’t matter what meaning, affective connection, education, entertainment, research, or art we are able to create or wrangle out of human remains, if they came to the museum through violence or exploitation.
When museums hoard the remains of disabled and non-disabled people from all over the world like some kind of treasure, and present them in a manner that contributes to the public enfreakment of disability, those of us who are committed to intersectional, decolonial disability justice should be rightfully critical of them. These museums do not exist in isolation, simply as sites for disability representation, or as a “home” for goth subcultures to craft their aesthetic. The medical museum’s histories are inextricable from the broader histories of the extractions, depredations, indignities, displacements, and violence of Empire. Hundreds of activists and scholars have traced these histories and argued for the decolonisation of the museum, both in the restricted, paywalled pages of journals and books, but also openly in more public forums (13). For example, for decades now, people all over the world have been asking for the repatriation of remains of Indigenous ancestors stolen from their communities; they have been fighting these questions in courts all over the world, in public discourse, in academic journals, and newspaper articles. We no longer have the excuse of ignorance, or the justifications offered by our desires to “consume” these remains in any way that makes us feel better about the past, the present, or the future. We especially cannot ignore these conversations when we consider the question of human remains at the Mütter. Indeed, it has never been more important for us to centre justice in how we reconsider our entitlement to human remains.
I want to invite all of you reading this to reflect on what it means to think about medical museums through the necessary, intensely productive, and intersecting lenses of disability, power and Empire; and to not discount the histories that shaped these spaces. To know that every bone, skin fragment, body part, or “anomaly” you encounter in these museums (especially those from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) were very likely taken without the explicit consent of the dead, their communities or families, like Nooki and Hannai’s child. To know that our “education” or “entertainment” comes at the cost of disturbing their rest. To confront the fact that there is no justification for us to insist the dead continue to be exhibited, used, and consumed. These contexts are especially important for disabled people; as disabled people have been the particular targets of such unethical cultures of collection and display. We cannot, therefore, afford to ignore the structural violence that shapes medical museums. There can be no disability justice without intersectionality, or without history.
1 Meilan Solly, “Why a London Museum is Removing the Skeleton of an Irish Giant from View,” The Smithsonian Magazine, January 17, 2023. Hunter of course, had a history of “acquiring” bodies like this. Among his large collection of “comparative anatomy” accumulated in the late eighteenth century was the skeleton of Charles Byrne, who was often described as the “Irish Giant.” When he died, surgeons and physicians were desperate to “acquire” his body, but Byrne had explicitly been against his body being displayed and took extensive counter-measures. Hunter bribed those guarding Charles Byrne’s body, and “acquired” the body, again, against the explicit wishes of Byrne himself. And the Irish giant had been on display at the RCSM for decades until 2023, when activists managed to finally get the skeleton removed from display.
2 Anyone looking for further reading: I would recommend the brilliant Abdul-Aliy Muhammad and Lura D Monteiro, “Finding Ceremony for Ancestors Held in the Penn Museum and Other Colonial Institutions,” Sapiens, https://www.sapiens.org/
3 “Medical News.: The Mutter Museum.” Medical and Surgical Reporter, 1, 21 (Feb 19, 1859): 376.
4 Stephan Salisbury. “Breathing Life into Mütter: The “Cabinet of Curiosities” May Double in Size to Grow Along with the Museum’s Popularity,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Sep 14, 2018.
5 Ellen Gray. “Flu Pandemic Song: Mütter Museum-Commissioned Piece to Get National Airing.” Philadelphia Inquirer, Apr 28, 2020.
6 “Meet Carol” https://scalar.usc.edu/works/humanity-on-display/carol-orzel; Dana Bate, “Philly woman with rare bone disease donates skeleton to Mütter Museum, WHYY, https://whyy.org/articles/philly-woman-with-rare-bone-disease-fibrodysplasia-ossificans-progressiva-donates-skeleton-to-mutter-museum/
7 Liz Langley, “In Philadelphia, A Medical Museum puts the Human Body on Display: The Mütter Museum, while not for the squeamish, is a fascinating repository of all things anatomical,” Washington Post, February 8, 2018.
8 Anna Pattani, “Tree Fits Its Site: Mutter Museums Outrageous Ornaments,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 December 2018, B1.
9 Christine Quigley, Skulls and Skeletons: Human Bone Collections and Accumulations, McFarland, 107.
10 Gretchen Worden, The Mutter Museum: Of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Blast Books, 2002, 180.
11 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNkov3hOp5E&t=7s In 2012, The Mütter ran a campaign named “Save Our Skulls’ that asked patrons and supporters to sponsor a skull from the Hyrtl Collection, to help with conservation and preservation. Bewilderingly, no one appears to have considered how this campaign underscores colonial logics of ownership.
12 Joseph A Gambardello, “Skull is Headed Back: Mutter Museum will return bullet-struck bones to Australia,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 4 October 2017, B2. In 2017, the Mütter Museum returned the remains of Private Thomas Hurdis, an Australian soldier who had been killed near Ypres, Belgium, during the First World War. Hurdis had been wounded, and operated on by WT Shoemaker, a Philadelphia ophthalmologist. It is not exactly clear how Hurdis’ skull arrived in the Mütter’s collection. But when the Australian government pushed for repatriation of the Australian solder’s skull, the Mütter eventually agreed. Robert Hicks, then director of the museum, said in a statement that the museum “observes a high standard of care and respect regarding human remains, and our observances of relevant laws and protocols is consistent with best practice in United States museums.”
13 See, for instance, this open access series: “Special Focus: The Morton Cranial Collection and Legacies of Scientific Racism in Museums,” History of Anthropology Review, https://histanthro.org/tag/morton/
Aparna Nair is a historian of disability, public health and medicine. Her forthcoming book Fungible Bodies explores the relationships between disability, race and colonialism in British India. She also has lived with epilepsy for more than thirty years and part of her work also explores what it means to live with epilepsy in South Asia, and issues around passing, gender, identity and belonging. She currently teaches at the University of Toronto Scarborough’s Department of Health and Society.
Support Disability Media and Culture
DONATE to the Disability Visibility Project®