Today my Developmental Biology class took a trip down to Philly to visit the Mutter Museum. The museum is part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which is a medical organization that was founded on the prospect “to advance the science of medicine and to thereby lessen human misery.” The Mutter Museum in particular collects and displays the remnants of medical anomalies and cases, some of which are developmental, congenital or just plain weird!
Our visit was prefaced by two presentations led by a docent of the Museum who had studied cases of conjoined twins and ‘circus freaks’ in great detail. She presented to us all the possible configurations of conjoined twins and the biological basis for such anomalies. We learned about the most recent cases of conjoined twins and their life histories, including details about their daily existence and personality traits that she knew of. Next she talked to us about the ‘born freaks’ of the circus. We started with the many manifestations of dwarfism and giantism, then moved to extra hairy individuals, those with parasitic twins and disorders where people are missing multiple limbs.
When we finally moved on to the exhibit, I must say, I was not prepared. Some of the displays were quite disturbing. Everything from drawers of objects swallowed by patients, to a string of preserved warts that had been removed, an entire collection of conjoined twins and fetuses with developmental spinal disorders. I don’t even know what to say about it all!
As we moved through the exhibit we were asked to contemplate the feeling of otherness associated with disorders such as these, but honestly, I am not sure I got to that point because I was so shocked by most of them. Of course the cases on display were often those that were most extreme, but it was sure hard to stomach! It is difficult to tease out the visceral reactions to much of these as sometime it feels like shock, other times like empathy or disbelief. Next step is to watch the movie ‘Freaks’ which creates a story of love in a circus side show and highlights many of the true ‘born freaks’ that toured with circuses back in the day.