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In January 2023, Kate Quinn, the executive director of Philadelphia’s famous Mütter Museum, asked her staff to take down all online exhibits and YouTube videos, so the museum could do an ethical review of their entire collection. The move came as museums across the country grapple with how to handle human remains.
The Mütter Museum’s tagline is “disturbingly informative” and it is known for its collection of medical specimens, which includes an eight-foot-long colon, pieces of Einstein’s brain, and tumors in jars. Quinn’s order to take down online materials caused confusion and uncertainty, and it had immediate consequences.
For one, students in the museum’s after school programs use the virtual exhibits and materials for projects. Now, education staff had to scrap those plans without a clear idea of what was wrong with the exhibits, and what they could or could not use, said Victor Gomes, who was coordinating one of the programs at the time.
“There was … this kind of uncertainty and … people trying to sort of guess at what the problems are,” he said.
The Mütter Museum on South 22nd Street in Philadelphia. (Google Maps)
He wondered if he could use the exhibits that came to the museum more recently and had detailed documentation about sources and consent, but he did not get any answers. He had to change the programs after he had already guided students through them for a semester, without being able to tell them why. The student projects ended up not using any videos of the museum’s exhibits, just to be on the safe side.
“The students were very clearly bummed. I was bummed too,” Gomes said. “That felt really bad for me as an instructor to … have to… sprint to try to work around all of this and ultimately do worse by the kids in my opinion,” he said.
He said his supervisors couldn’t answer any of his questions about the content, nor could they get clear answers from people above them when they asked. He said the museum’s then-CEO Mira Irons never responded to his questions via email, and neither Irons nor Quinn were available to talk in person.
A current staff member at the Mütter Museum, whom WHYY News will not name because they fear retaliation, said the staff scrambled to carry out an order they did not fully understand.
“I remember walking into the library and seeing a number of museum staffers just furiously going through YouTube and being like, ‘Okay, we have a bezoar, which is like a ball of hair that goes through an intestinal tract, and it was a human bezoar, like is this human remains?’”
Exhibit disappearance causes a stir
Some people quickly noticed that the museum’s online exhibits were gone, like Robert Pendarvis, who had donated his own heart to the Mütter Museum after receiving a new one through an organ donation. He wanted more people to learn about acromegaly, a rare medical condition he has. He did video interviews with museum staff and regularly uses those videos to explain his condition to medical staff.
He emailed the museum to ask for an explanation, and that inquiry led to a staff meeting with Quinn, and Irons, the museum’s then-CEO. During that meeting, Irons said she couldn’t stand to walk through the museum, which shocked staff.