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Mutter Museum gets even weirder

New gallery will honor late director Gretchen Worden
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fans will soon get to see more of what they love about the Mutter Museum, known around the world for its collection of organs preserved in jars, deformed skeletons and lifelike wax casts of astounding medical maladies.

The downtown Philadelphia institution is opening a new gallery in memory of its longtime director and biggest booster, Gretchen Worden, who died last August at age 56 after a brief illness.

A former storage room is being transformed into a 530-square-foot gallery, which will be named for Worden and will include her portrait. It is expected to be completed by July 1 and will increase the museum’s overall exhibit space by 20 percent, interim director Margaret Lyman said.

About 1,000 of the Mutter Museum’s roughly 20,000 items — sometimes gut-wrenching and always engrossing — are on display.

“It was Gretchen’s dream to be able to show some of the hidden treasures we have in our collection,” said Laurie Grant, marketing director for the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the museum’s controlling body founded in 1787.

The exact layout of the new gallery hasn’t been determined but likely will include more wet specimens — anatomical and pathological samples. Some items date to the 19th century; their old formaldehyde preservative will be replaced with gentler alcohol. The Gretchen Worden Gallery also may include selections from the museum’s collection of medical photographs and books.

Century-old display cases are being restored for the new gallery to blend with the rest of the Mutter’s antique wooden and brass cabinets, which hold preserved human and animal brains, a dried cadaver opened to display the circulatory system and a 5-foot-long colon.

The new gallery will show items in temporary exhibits — another of Worden’s big dreams for the museum — so officials can gauge what visitors respond to most, Grant said.

“She worked tirelessly to try to bring the museum to the widest possible audience,” she said. “We want this to be a memorial to her and a commitment to her vision.”

The Mutter Museum was established in 1849 by Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter as a teaching tool for students of medicine before the modern marvels of X-rays and antibiotics.

Worden arrived as a curatorial assistant in 1975 and became museum director in 1988. Under her watch, the public discovered its unusual offerings, which also include a tumor removed from President Grover Cleveland, the thorax of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, and a plaster cast — accompanied by the single preserved liver — of famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker.

“In a stark but straightforward way, it tells people something about the range of what it means to be human,” said Dr. Arthur K. Asbury, president of the College of Physicians. “And it points out how far medicine has come in the last 200 years.”

Annual attendance rose from about 5,000 in 1985 to about 60,000 last year, fueled by Worden’s droll appearances on David Letterman’s TV show — she would startle her late-night foil with giant gallstones and frightening old medical instruments — along with word-of-mouth promotion from legions of loyal Mutter fans.

The museum’s subject matter prompted some in the College of Physicians, a nonprofit society that discusses medical issues and history, to question several years ago whether it was appropriate to display human remains. Worden staunchly defended the museum, saying in 1999 that it “is not a part of some sideshow or something to be ashamed of. These are here to look at and learn from.”

Asbury agreed, adding that museum also is working to have another of Worden’s dreams realized: official accreditation by the prestigious American Association of Museums.

“The museum was Gretchen’s life,” he said. “She understood it, and so people who come to the museum also understand and appreciate it.”