A Lap Around The USA – Day 12 – Philadelphia - Sandpit

A Lap Around The USA – Day 12 – Philadelphia

Inspiration / 15 May 2017

by Dan Koerner

A note on Philadelphia

Central DC is a pristine place, populated with preppy 20 and 30 somethings operating the invisible levers of government. Arriving in Philly feels comparatively like a real town, dirty and loud. I’m getting fairly unimpressed looks when Philadelphians insist I try a “cheese steak” (whatever that is) and a decline due to my vegetarianism. It’s also very boozy. Eating breakfast at 10am I suddenly realise everyone else in the large restaurant in which I found myself had either a large beer or a full glass of wine. And who am I to resist? I punch down breakfast and head off to…

The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia


The Mütter is confronting as all hell to visit early on a Sunday morning, thank god for the mimosa. Founded in 1863 it is a collection of curiosities, medical equipment, bones, preserved body parts (including deformed foetuses) and lots of creepily realistic wax models. The collection was originally assembled by surgeon Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter to further surgical education but now largely sees throngs of tourists gasping at all the things in jars. The museum itself moved into its current digs in 1909 and provided the College of Physicians of Philadelphia a space to conduct meetings, advocate for their industry and keep the collection including a library. Access on my visit was granted via a surly Philadelphian chap on the front desk who grumpily informed me that I’d have to use a locker for my backpack. Inside the beautiful old building you’re confronted by a grand staircase and an antechamber with relics relevant to the time of founding this incarnation of the museum.

The Mütter Museum – interior (click to explore)

The collection itself is via a small doorway to the left of the staircase where you are immediately confronted by The Soap Lady – a naturally embalmed female corpse whose body had been preserved by basically turning into a brown, soapy substance due to the rare climactic conditions of her burial. Further in a few deformities in formaldehyde give a hint of what is tome come. Probably most impressive in the collection is a huge wall of human skulls collected by the Mütter over the years. Each is from a different, largely European location and are a combination of donated victims of illness (largely tuberculosis), hanged criminals or suicides. Small panels give the name of the individual, their location and type of death. Most are from the past two hundred years with rare exceptions including an ancient Egyptian skull from the Valley of the Kings – significantly more brown than the rest. One label that just pronounces “cretin” shows us how far we’ve come.

Further into the collection is a room full of preserved foetuses, skeletons of conjoined twins and other birth defects. These are pretty confronting even for me but the young kid who was freaking out, only to be reassured that it was “all okay” perhaps was a little young for such horrors? Following this was a temporary exhibition dedicated to medicine and surgery in the American Civil War and was surprisingly informative albeit quite graphic as is the house style.

Below is the Mütter Museum Giant, the skeleton of an unnamed chap from Kentucky whose identity was withdrawn on its donation to the collection. At seven feet and six inches it’s the second largest human giant skeleton on exhibit worldwide and is really cool. Right next to the giant is the megacolon, an indescribably huge human colon which was removed from a 20 year old known as “Balloon Man”. Today we know this condition as Hirschsprung’s disease – words can’t do it justice, just follow the link.

There are countless objects in this blessedly old-school museum and is an essential during a visit to Philly.

Admission: 18 clams.

Digital engagement: Blessedly zip for such a historical institution except a kind of cool demonstration in the American Civil War exhibition. A touch panel outside of a small room informs you when it’s your turn. Once someone exits, it asks you to enter you skin tone and height. Once inside you place your feet on two footprints on the ground which makes your right arm disappear behind a screen. In front of you is a mirror. Text appears in the top of the mirror telling you about the several awful stages one would have gone through after loosing an arm in the civil war. An animated arm appears where your right arm should be and takes you through all the stages of gangrene, amputation, healing and phantom limb. Works a treat.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art


The PMA is a massive, neoclassical building opened to the public in 1876 and has a mind numbingly huge collection of architectural and sculptural objects and visual art from the Western and Asian world from the third millennium BCE right up to the present. The PMA was made famous in popular culture for the huge sandstone staircase leading to the gallery that Rocky jogged up and waved both fists in the air. It’s nice that the museum irreverently goes out to this with a large bronze statue of Sly Stalone at the base of the steps that had a huge queue of visitors for a photo opp. Even the PMA’s logo is a nod to this as the stairs feature heavily.

One of the biggest reason I wanted to come here was the very targeted collection of Marcel Duchamp works. To get there, you must first navigate the visitor queues and massive entry hallway then through the rabbit warren that is the northern wing of the gallery. This part of the building has an impressive collection of 20th century art including many Jasper Johns, Kandinsky, de Kooning, Miro and Duchamp works. The bulk of Duchamp’s work at the PMA takes over a large room including a 1950 “replica” of his infamous Fountain (I put replica in inverted commas as Duchamp’s reproductions were self made and as much art works as the originals).

The Duchamp exhibit (click to explore)

The collection also includes The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), a huge glazed panel that includes Duchamp’s signature machine/insect hybrids in oil, varnish and lead foil. The work was shattered by removalists after an exhibition in Brooklyn in 1926 then painstakingly pieced back together by Duchamp who revelled in this next chapter in the life of a living artwork. In a small room off of Duchamp’s main hall can be found his final piece Étant Donnés – a cunning trick involving a false wall with a peep hole. When you look through a naked woman is revealed, spread eagled in a natural setting and holding up a lamp. Duchamp created the work leading up to his death and supplied a manual for its installation at the PMA to occur only once he had kicked the bucket.


Étant Donnés

Upstairs is room upon room of antiquities and reconstructed interiors of rooms purchased and literally transported to Philadelphia from the old world. This is genuinely massive and slightly hard going as opulent room leads into yet again another opulent room. What is truly spectacular in the PMA’s collection, though is their many reconstructed building interiors from Asia and the Middle East including a whole Japanese tea house complex and several Buddhist temples. The provenance of such items would have been fascinating given their audacity.

Interestingly, after gaining admission, front of house staff supply visitors with a small, wearable metal clip thingy, both at the PMA and the Mütter. The idea here is that you wear it on your person and it his hence evident that you have forked out the cash to get in. This worked fine at the Mütter however at the PMA mine refused to stay on which got me in trouble with security a couple of times. I suddenly realised, though that I was not the only one as I constantly heard the sound of tiny bits of metal falling on the marble floor for the duration of my visit.


Said clippy thingies.

The whole site is undergoing a massive extension under the design auspices of Frank Gehry (because if you’re gonna do it, you’ve gotta get in Gehry). The whole thing will be terrifyingly huge after this is complete and will put vast amounts of the collection on permanent display.

Admission: $20 (I’m going broke). However, first Sunday of the month and every Wednesday after 5pm you can pay what you want. Damn.

Digital engagement: Extensive website that allows you to search the collection in earnest. Three apps available including one baffling “Philadelphia Museum of Art ID audio guide” (paid – goodness gracious!) which allegedly allows visitors to scan an artwork with their phone’s camera to reveal additional audio information. After crashing several times I eventually unsuccessfully scanned a couple of artworks. I then discovered scannable artworks are only from a particular list. Unfortunately these were not presented on a map but I perused the list and remembered a Van Gogh I had walked past then headed to to (slightly embarrassingly) scan it with my phone. Again, no dice. Not brilliant.


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