Skulls and caption Geek Love and Why you need to read this novel and then go to the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.
, ,

Mütter Museum – Fiction to Inspire Your Visit to Philadelphia’s Freakiest Collection of Real-Life Anatomical Oddities

Fiction or reality? The carny world in “Geek Love” and the reality displayed at the Mütter Museum will make you “appreciate the mysteries and beauties of the human body.”

Panoramic view of the lower level of the Mutter museum in Philadelphia.
Photo credit: The Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

“I get the glimpses of the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique.” – Arturo Binewski, “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn

Geek Love is the story of the Binewskis, a carny family whose mater- and paterfamilias set out–with the help of amphetamine, arsenic, and radioisotopes–to breed their own exhibit of human oddities. Reading Geek Love inspired my visit to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. The museum’s exhibits of anatomical abnormalities help the public “appreciate the mysteries and beauties of the human body.” The day I visited the Mütter there was a special exhibit called Imperfecta that was freakishly perfect to view in the wake of Geek Love. The exhibit is open through the fall of 2019, and “examines shifting perceptions about abnormal human development, from fear and wonder to curiosity and clinical science.” I think Al Binewski would have been a frequent student of the museum. Thank goodness he’s just a figment of fiction.

[S]imply because a condition such as abnormal human development has been studied and classified by medical science, that does not mean that it cannot touch the deepest part of our psyche, making us question what it means to be imperfect.

Mutter Museum on the exhibit, “Imperfecta”

The Mütter Museum was founded in 1863 and is located at the headquarters of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The Museum is named for Thomas Dent Mütter, MD (1811 – 1859), a physician, professor, and Fellow of the College who bequeathed his entire teaching collection to the College. Although the museum has scientific roots and obvious educational justifications, for all the oddities on display some might call the Mütter a very classy freak show. Novel Tourists who enjoy getting a little grossed out will find Geek Love and the Mütter Museum exhilarating.

Arms and other anatomical specimens on display at the Mutter museum.
Photo credit: The Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Fiction’s fantastical roots can be found on display at the Mütter museum

In Geek Love, the Binewski kids include Iphy and Elly, the sexy, piano playing conjoined twins; Oly, a dwarf albino with a hunchback who narrates the story; Arturo the Waterboy, with flippers and a maniacal brain; and Chick, he of prodigious mental powers. The Mütter museum houses an extensive collection of weird human body parts and you’ll find the Binewski clan’s anomalies well represented. For instance, the conjoined twin exhibits feature skeletons of various locations of connectivity. The Mütter is also the resting place of the plaster death cast of celebrated “Siamese Twins” Chang and Eng Bunker, who toured to American and European audiences in “freak shows” much like the Binewski’s. Readers who are particularly interested in learning more about the monetization of abnormal bodies, particularly through the freak shows of the 19th century, (like the fictional Binewski carnival), might enjoy Further into Imperfecta.

The museum’s vast displays make you more cognizant of your own body and leave you pondering what it would be like to be “imperfect.” Geek Love Arturo fans will appreciate the interactive display that enables you to experience what it is like to have your arm cut off. Yeah, you read that right. You stand in the booth and watch as your arm slowly rots from gangrene and then is swiftly cleaved below the elbow. Ewwwwww.

The gut-wrenching displays don’t stop there. At the Mutter you’ll find a boy who slowly turned to bone, an extremely large petrified penis, two hands with gout, multiple brains bobbing in jars, a human facial horn (cornu cutaneum), and so much more.

One of my favorite displays is the 139 human skulls acquired from Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtl in 1874. It’s pretty tame compared to the rest of the museum! According to the Mütter, Hyrtl’s work was “an attempt to counter the claims of phrenologists, who held that cranial features were evidence of intelligence and personality and that racial differences caused anatomical differences.”

Skulls on display at the Mutter museum in Philadelphia
Photo credit: The Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

If you are so inclined, you can “adopt” a skull. Each skull is labeled such as:

  • Oration Trani. Age 39. Idiot
  • Girolamo Zini – Rope walker. Died of atlanto-axial dislocation (broken neck)
  • Wolumir Dragan. Died of cholera in Varna. Ship apprentice.
  • Modavia Vasilie Buzdugan. Gypsy

Competition for attention is a theme in Geek Love and played out at the Mütter

Every skull is unique; however, just like the Binewski kids, the 25,000 anatomically interesting specimens at the Mütter compete for attention. The collection is vast and the museum is relatively small with cabinet style displays. Therefore, the Mütter Museum varies what it unveils at any given time. That said, generally you will find specimens floating in jars (some dating back to the early 19th century), bones and skeletons, anatomical models, and surgical instruments. After reading Geek Love, I couldn’t look at the jars of abnormal fetuses without immediately thinking of Lil’s display. The Mütter is not for the faint of heart!

The Mütter’s permanent exhibits include:
• Soap Lady
• Dr. Joseph Hyrtl’s human skull collection
• Plaster cast and conjoined liver of “Siamese twins” Chang & Eng
• Specimen from John Wilkes Booth’s vertebra
• Jaw tumor of President Grover Cleveland
• Rotating exhibits of photographic art and illustrations
• Tallest skeleton on display in North America
• Einstein’s brain

display case with pieces of Einstein's brain
Einstein’s brain. Photo credit: The Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

A Word to the Wise on the Mütter

Caution: The Mütter Museum is filled with real-life dead people’s body parts. Young children or those with a weak constitution may not be able to handle it. Open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

More Fiction and Non-fiction Books to Inspire Your Visit to the Mütter Museum

I discovered Geek Love while searching for a circus book to fulfill the 2019 Read & Go Challenge. While the book did not inspire me to go to a traditional circus, some might say the Mütter is a very classy freak show, so I counted it as meeting the spirit of the challenge! If you are interested in museums generally, you might enjoy these novels set in a museum.

As to inspiration to visit the Müttter museum, while Geek Love is my personal pick, there are quite a few others that fit the bill. You might enjoy any one of these:

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Genre: Fiction

Geek Love is at once disturbing and fascinating, like a train wreck you can’t look away from. There may not be one character you can confess to actually liking; yet, you’ll find yourself empathizing with most of them, even as you find their behavior objectionable. Geek Love has a cult like following and has inspired pop culture heroes, which is not surprising considering that its commentary on human nature throws its sulfurous light on our notions of the freakish and the normal, the beautiful and the ugly, the holy and the obscene. I couldn’t put it down.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Genre: Non-fiction

This is the true story of Henrietta Lacks. Scientists know her as HeLa. Henrietta died of cancer decades ago; yet, through HeLa, like the subjects of the displays at the Mütter Museum, she lives on. Henrietta was a poor, black tobacco farmer whose unique ovarian cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family penniless. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine. Incredulous that this could happen in a modern society, you’ll find yourself flipping to the cover frequently to confirm it really is a true story.

Boy of Bone by Kathleen R. Sand

Genre: Short stories – Fiction

In this extraordinary narrative and visual collection, twelve stories are crafted out of the imagined lives of actual people. Each fictional story is inspired by an exhibit at the Mütter Museum. One reviewer states: “Through Sands, some of the ‘dead voices’ who inhabit the Mütter Museum are given the means to speak, to tell us their stories, filled as they are with pain, grief, sadness, suffering – and, joy, peace, and divinity as well. From a man mourning the loss of his conjoined twin (“The Pump Twin”) to a scientist who has fallen ‘in love’ with one of his own medical devices (“The Face Phantom”), the characters you meet within these pages will not soon be forgotten.” – Kelly Garbato, Amazon review

Dr. Mutter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

Genre: Nonfiction

Mütter was an audacious medical innovator who pioneered the use of ether as anesthesia, the sterilization of surgical tools, and a compassion-based vision for helping the severely deformed, which clashed spectacularly with the sentiments of his time. Dr. Mutter’s Marvels is the vivid chronicles on how Mütter’s efforts helped establish Philadelphia as a global mecca for medical innovation—despite intense resistance from his numerous rivals. (Foremost among them: Charles D. Meigs, an influential obstetrician who loathed Mütter’s “overly modern” medical opinions.) In the narrative spirit of The Devil in the White CityDr. Mütter’s Marvels interweaves an eye-opening portrait of nineteenth-century medicine with the riveting biography of a man once described as the “[P. T.] Barnum of the surgery room.”

Happy Reading and Exploring!

Oh hey, if you decide you want to buy any of the books featured above, purchasing through the links in this post costs no extra to you, but I receive a small commission that helps keep The Novel Tourist and ways to make life as fun as fiction going. Thanks for your support!

Psst…If you are ready to turn the page to a more interesting and adventurous chapter of your literary life, be sure to subscribe to The Novel Tourist Newsletter to make sure you don’t miss a single great book suggestion and activity pair up! After all, Life should be as Fun as Fiction! Go for it!

Skulls photo credit: The Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.