“Who wants to sleep overnight at the Mütter Museum with me for my birthday?”
Many hands shot up. My friends, they knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure being proposed. My friends, they knew exactly what the Mütter was: one of the world’s most unusual museums, the kind you don’t visit if you are squeamish. But my friends and I, we’re not squeamish. We’ve all long wanted to visit the Mütter’s collection of medical oddities, to see the conjoined liver from Siamese twins Chang and Eng, pieces of Einstein’s brain, diseased body parts floating in jars and the 139 skulls of the famed Hyrtl collection. Somehow, none of us had ever made the trek to Philadelphia. But when we saw that event listing, for a special adult sleepover at the Mütter — complete with scary movie, seance, pizza, and flashlight tour….it was, you might say, a no-brainer. (Sorry.)
In the end, there were eight of us Canadians who descended on the Mütter, joining a dozen others who had travelled from across America to attend. As first time visitors, it was alot to take in. The galleries are fairly small, but also jammed with fascinating specimens. We were supposed to be setting up our bedding in the assigned sleeping zones but all I wanted to do was just drop my bags and stick my face against the glass cabinets of curiosities and read everything! But the event features a full schedule of night-time programming, and soon we were whisked away in our pyjamas to the foreboding Gross Library for a “seance” with mentalist Francis Menotti. Thrice I was enlisted in his parlour mind tricks, good ones too. Then, beneath the artwork of Jordan Eagles, who uses slaughterhouse blood in this work, we ate gourmet pizza, drank beer and wine and watched The Sixth Sense, which was filmed in Philadelphia. I don’t think I ever saw that film again after the first time, and its Big Reveal, so that was good fun. There wasn’t much mingling between the participants, but I met a young women who is studying to be a neurologist, there with her sister and mom. And I noticed several people reading about and discussing medical conditions that they themselves have suffered from. The Mütter attracts the morbidly inclined (e.g., us) but also those with an interest in medical history and the human body.
Our guide for the sleepover was J Nathan Bazzel. Officially, he’s the museum’s director of communications—but clearly he’s much more. A passionate guardian for the College of Physician’s prized collection, there’s little if anything he doesn’t know the history of the building, the artifacts or the organization. The sleepover ticket got us access to parts of the Mütter not normally open to visitors, like the bowels where research is done (oh, hello, stray Iron Lung in the hallway), and the towering seven-stories of its library. Just as Bazzel was explaining how a report from the previous sleepover of a ghost spotted in the stacks couldn’t possibly have been true, some of our fellow visitors claimed a book fell off the shelf. I didn’t see it, but believers took this as a strong sign that skeptics such as myself and Bazzel might want to sleep with one eye open. Most importantly, there was a tour in the dark by flashlight of the Müttter highlights. So many skeletons. So many stories of medical discoveries. For me, it was all about the Hyrtl skulls, and I spent as much time as possible staring at these cranial specimens before lights out, when we all tucked into our sleeping bags. That’s when it really hits you, how cool this all is, sleeping in a museum! I drifted off with my head next to something bizarre in a jar that would give most people nightmares. Smiling.
By the time we ate the catered breakfast and checked out the next morning, we had been in the Mütter for close to 15 hours. At yet, I feel I have barely seen any of the collection, and need another full visit, without distraction, to really take it in. No further sleepovers have been announced but I’m pretty sure they’ll be doing it again. So, who’s in?