The Backstory Podcast: Erin Thompson Feels "Radically Connected to Humanity" at the Mütter Museum

Otis Staff

Today on The Backstory, Dan and Sean are joined by Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime at John Jay college of the City University of New York, and in fact the country’s only professor specializing in art crime. Between talking about heists, fakes, and the world’s most frequently stolen Rembrandt, they also made time to go deep on Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, the ethics of viewing, and being home among weirdos.

An edited transcript follows; listen to the full episode below.



Dan McQuade: When did you first learn of this museum and what draws you to it?

Erin Thompson: So I have a weird thing for medical history museums in general, and the Mütter Museum in Philly is my absolute favorite. And I've gone to it so many times. In fact, if you're dating me, you'll know that I'm getting serious, not because I tell you it's serious, but because I invite you to go on a little day trip to the Mütter Museum. [...]

Other medical history museums tend to take more of this heroic route of, “Oh, look, this physician invented this technique that has saved countless lives.” The Mütter Museum is more like, “What the hell is going on?” You know, there's this, it's a lot about the sort of older medicine of, “We know that this thing happens, but we're not sure why or how to fix it.” And it's about the struggle of trying to make people's lives better.

Dan McQuade: A lot of the stuff really takes you back to when medicine wasn't quite as formalized and didn't have quite such scientific principles to it, which is interesting.

Erin Thompson: And it's true too, that even medicine can evolve however much it wants, but to all of us, our bodies are still incredibly weird. You know, I'm getting older and it's like, “What? My body can do that or wants to do that?” So the Mütter Museum is full of all of these models or samples of people's bodies, doing things that they did not expect, like becoming gigantic or having this sort of growth or adapting in a different way.

And there's things that I saw there that then I had medical problems with the same parts; there's things that I saw that reminded me of problems people in my family have had. And it is a place where I felt radically connected to others because of the weirdnesses that we all share, or that... It's an idea that there's no normal, it's all weird. So I felt radically connected, but also it's a place that showed me how radically different people can be from one another. I feel connected, but I also feel like I better understand that there are people whose experience of the world is completely different than what I can comprehend.

Sean Williams: What would you say are the parallels between the forensics of that and the art world with what you do?

Erin Thompson: Oh, good question. I think there's questions of the ethics of viewing. You know, that people, cultures, objects even are trusting you to look at them and you have to understand and teach yourself how to interact with them and not just take advantage of them for your own purposes. And these are people's remains — some of whom donated their bodies and some of whom didn't. And I think when you go to a museum, it can be similar. There are plenty of paintings on display where it was their artist's greatest dream to be in museums, but there's also other stuff that was supposed to be hidden or for ritual purposes. So you have to think about how you can be a good audience for looking at a thing.

Dan McQuade: There's the body of a woman at the museum, called the Philadelphia soap lady. And it's some woman in, I think they originally thought the 1790s, but I think it's actually more recent, who somehow, by the way she was buried, the outside of her body was like turned to soap. So she's super well-preserved. And I always thought it was weird because she was buried, and then they just exhumed her. And now she's on display. 

And in a city like Philadelphia that's old, that's kind of common. I took my driver's test at some strip mall I later learned was built on top of a cemetery that was not even an original cemetery, like they moved bodies from somewhere else and dumped them there. 

And it does seem weird going to the Mütter Museum to be like, “Oh yeah, I'm looking at this woman who was buried. And then we exhumed her for some reason.” And obviously, I guess that's a criticism of the museum, but it's also interesting in the sense that like that's what a good museum does it sort of make you think about those things.

Erin Thompson: Yeah. I'm not sure what I feel about the soap lady, but it does make you think and then compare it to other displays of bodies. So I never gave a second thought to having mummies on display, for example, in almost until I went and saw the soap lady and then it's like, wait, but that's-

Dan McQuade: She’s just like a much more recent mummy. Yeah.

Erin Thompson: And just last week, the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford took off of display some so-called shrunken heads because they thought that wasn't a respectful display of human remains. So another thing changing. So I don't know, goes to the soap lady now, maybe the Mütter museum will-

Dan McQuade: Yeah. I'm going to start a trend then.

Sean Williams: There goes Coney Island.

Dan McQuade: I think that's what draws me to the museum too, is that it is a bit like Coney Island, which you don't see in a museum. I love shore towns and that sort of weird carnival huckster thing. And you don't really associate that with something like a museum, but the Mütter Museum does sort of feel like that. I'm looking at this list of things. And one thing I didn't read off earlier was the Chevalier Jackson, MD collection of 2,374 swallowed objects. Like that sounds like something I should be paying fifty cents for, at the carnival in town.

Erin Thompson: I was going to bring that up too. That's one of my favorite displays because they're all in little drawers in this cabinet, so-

Dan McQuade: You have to pull it out.

Erin Thompson: And it's heroic. Okay. So I was saying that they didn't do these heroic treatments of physicians. So this is kind of an exception. So Jackson invented a way to remove objects that people had swallowed, mostly kids like buttons and little toys and nails and whatever. And before that would have been lethal in so many cases, this was the late 19th century. It's not like exactly, you could crack somebody's chest open for fun, or it would get infected. So now I'm sure like so many parents go to the emergency room because their kids stuck a button in their nose or ear or whatever. And you're using what he invented to save your kid's life. And he was working on making this field better. So he kept everything and he kept these really exact notes of the age of the person who swallowed it and how they recovered. But now it's sort of this weird like carnivalesque display of, “Oh my God, who ate that.”

Dan McQuade: But it is an example of an incredible advance in medicine, even in a heroic way, like, “Good job Dr. Jackson, like we can celebrate you a little because that was pretty good.”

Erin Thompson: But also you're kind of a weirdo for having kept all these things, but getting to my point, like we're all weirdos together at the Mütter Museum.

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