Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia.

Pam Schwartz and I have been binge watching American Horror Story: Freak Show.  Side show freaks were murdered in that show and then their deformed bodies were put on display in formaldehyde glass cases.  The museum curator was depicted as a woman of questionable morals who only wanted to find the most unique deformities to put on display.  Both the side show and museum were desperate for patrons as the public turned to TV instead of live entertainment.  The museum in that series must be based on the very real Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia (19 S 22nd Street Philadelphia, PA 19103.)

On display in the Mutter Museum is every conceivable deformity know to man.  On a recent trip to the Ringling Museum, I saw circus posters depicting Chang and Eng Bunker who are arguably the most famous conjoined Siamese twins. They were born in what is now Thailand in 1811. They came to the United States in 1829 to tour and speak. Eventually tiring of life as touring performers, they married sisters and bought adjacent farms in North Carolina in the early 1840s. Between them, they raised 21 children and managed two farms. 

When the brothers died in 1874, Fellows of The College of Physicians conducted the autopsy and arranged for the specimens to be transferred to the museum. On display in the main gallery are their conjoined livers and the plaster death cast of their torsos. Fetus' with various abnormalities were on display in glass jars on the shelves around the twins. No photography is allowed, but sketching is encouraged.  I could get lost in this place for weeks sketching all the unique forms.  

On the ground floor of the museum was an amazing art display by Lisa Nilsson.  In her Tissue Series, she created ornate quilled paper constructions that explore the complex geography of the human anatomy.  She used images of transverse, coronal and sagittal cross sections from medical sources as reference. Her work finds a delicate balance between art and anatomic accuracy, beauty and the grotesque.

The forms, made from Japanese mulberry paper and the gilt edges of antique books, are rendered in a technique of rolled and shaped paper called quilling or paper filigree. The technique, first practiced by Renaissance nuns and monks and later by aristocratic women in the 16th-18th centuries, finds a contemporary relevance in Nilsson’s work.

Prints are available for each sketch for $250 and many originals can be purchased for $400. White museum grade shadow box frames are $100 more. You can e-mail Thor at

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