Between Fascination and Nausea in Philadelphia

“There’s supposed to be a thumb here. But there is no thumb.”

This is what I overheard one visitor say to another, standing in front of a display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, a museum of medical history. Which is to say, a museum of skeletons and blood, body parts and medical devices. There are objects produced by the body, like gallstones, like an entire preserved face. There are objects from the body, like skin, like external female genitalia in a jar.


There are the things that have gone wrong with the body over time– gangrenous hands, an amazingly distended colon;  things that go wrong at birth — dwarfism, gigantism. There are the things women have done to the body over time, like wearing corsets which permanently altered bone structure, broken feet with wrapped around toes, the results of Chinese foot binding. And there are all the things that have happened to the body through bullets in bone from war and murder and suicide, an entire wall of pale yellow fetuses in jars

I have been wanting to go for a long, long time, but when I stood in front of a display near the case that housed the hand with the missing thumb, which contained a jar filled with translucent skin, picked from her own body by a 23 year old Caucasian woman with Dermatillomania, an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that leads to the intense urge to “pick off one’s own skin, to the extent that damage is caused,” a jar that I’d at first taken to be pork rinds, and involuntarily heard my own voice saying “oh oh oh” in strangled nausea, I really had to question why I wanted to come so much.

I like introspection, which after all means, looking inside, but this was taking it to another level all together. This was actually putting me off my lunch.

It’s disquieting how much preserved human body parts look like chicken. It’s disquieting to see that under certain conditions, human fat turns into soap post-mortem. (There’s a Soap Lady, which you’ll just have to go to see for yourself.) It’s disquieting to remember that all of these things are, to some extent or another, inside all of us right now. I would just as soon forget that we all wrap around colons, now that I’ve gotten a good look at one. Paying attention to makeup and skincare and clothing seems like just a nicety when you see all that we harbor inside.



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