What the Hell Is Happening With the Mütter Museum?

As debate over the ethics of displaying human remains rages, people are wondering if Philadelphia’s iconic medical history museum can survive — or if it even should.

Mütter Museum ethics controversy

The Mütter Museum’s controversy reveals the murky and changing ethics of museums that house human remains. / Photo-Illustration by Leticia R. Albano

In 1873, a year before retiring from the University of Vienna, Joseph Hyrtl composed a letter to a surgeon in Philadelphia named Thomas Hewson Bache. The son of an oboe player, Hyrtl had risen from poverty to become a world-famous instructor of anatomy during a more barbaric era of medicine. He ridiculed physiological experiments on animals, citing their cruelty, but dissected and collected body parts of dead criminals, suicide cases and Roma, sometimes ­stolen from cemeteries, which was a common medical practice of the time. But at age 62, Hyrtl, without an heir to his wealth, was writing to secure “a hospitable roof” for his most cherished “anatomical treasures,” which he detailed in the letter to Bache.

“[The skulls are] snowy-white, teeth complete, inferior maxilla moveable, with elastic wires. Such a collection will never again be brought together,” Hyrtl wrote. For sale: 140 skulls, most of them once belonging to poor Eastern ­Europeans — including one purported to be that of Viennese composer Amadeus Mozart, who died destitute — all for the low, low price of 6,410 thalers, or about $122,000 today.

Bache acquired the bones, minus those of Mozart, on behalf of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, a private membership group for doctors, where he worked as curator of its then-small teaching collection, the Mütter. The Hyrtl skulls began a transformation of the Mütter into a public museum that came to feature one of the world’s most renowned collections of pathological and anatomical specimens of human remains. Over time, the Mütter bought and received more than 6,600 specimens ranging from Grover Cleveland’s jaw tumor to a jar containing conjoined stillborn twins to skeletons deformed by syphilis, each of varying provenance. Although most 19th-century medical museums have since disappeared, the Mütter has continued to draw as many as 130,000 visitors a year.

If you walk into the Mütter today, among the first things you see are the Hyrtl skulls, encased in antique wood and glass, as they have been for more than a century. Off to one side is Einstein’s brain, which was appropriated without permission from an autopsy table. Only a few more steps and you reach the body of one Mrs. Ellenbogen, a.k.a. “the Soap Lady,” whose fatty tissue decomposed in such a way that she’s been naturally mummified. Her body was excavated and brought to the Mütter the same year Hyrtl’s skulls arrived.

“Joseph Leidy, the founder of the Academy of Natural Sciences, lied to the gravedigger and said it was his grandmother,” says Kate Quinn, the executive director of the Mütter. “We know that these people did not give consent to be in this building.”

Since arriving at the macabre museum in September 2022, Quinn has ignited a debate over the ethics of how its human remains are handled and displayed. In a series of moves, she pulled down most of the museum’s online content for review, called out her predecessors’ lack of ethical standards, and announced the first systematic audit of the collection since World War II. “I still do believe in the power of collections to teach,” Quinn says. “But the ethics have to be at the forefront of what you’re doing.”

A drumbeat of criticism has followed Quinn’s reforms. Detractors have accused her of ignoring the historical significance (and, to some, the beauty) of the collection in favor of her own agenda. “Cancel Culture Comes for Philly’s Weirdest Museum” was the title of an op-ed in June in the Wall Street Journal, written by a former head of the College. Others charge Quinn with snobbery. “She wants to turn the Mütter into the new wing of the PMA,” says one employee, speaking on condition of anonymity. An online petition calling for Quinn’s dismissal as well as that of the CEO of the College, Mira Irons, has gathered more than 33,000 signatures. This spring, as details surfaced of Quinn’s tenuous relationship with staff (13 employees left in her first nine months on the job), some of her opponents speculated that it was ego, not ethics, driving the overhaul. “They know they want to make big changes at the museum. They don’t know what they are going to be,” Robert Hicks, a former Mütter director, says of today’s management team. “They don’t want to put themselves out there, so they’re retreating behind a consistent opacity. I think it’s bullshit.”

Quinn, for her part, acknowledges that she’s reacting to a broader debate in the museum world. “I think anyone who is in this role and coming in at this time would be the face of the change,” she says. “It’s not me coming in and saying, We have to change everything. Society is changing around us.”

Since the murder of George Floyd, a renewed movement against racial injustice has forced museums of natural history, medicine and antiquity to reckon with ill-gotten pieces of their collections, especially human remains. The Hunterian Museum, an anatomical repository in London, recently reopened after a six-year hiatus and a dramatic overhaul. The Smithsonian apologized this summer for surreptitiously collecting human brains from the graves of Black Washingtonians. Harvard University recently pledged to repatriate hundreds of hair samples and body parts taken from Indigenous children.

But change has been slower to come to Philadelphia. At the Penn Museum, where Quinn worked for more than a decade, community activists continue to protest the lack of transparency in the university’s plans to repatriate the bones of Black Philadelphians in the notorious Morton Cranial Collection, 1,300 skulls used to explore theories of white supremacy. And while the Mütter is a different case, with defenders insisting its collection is unique, others say we can’t be sure of that. “There’s a lot we don’t know about the collection,” says Quinn, emphasizing the need for an audit. Lyra Monteiro, an anthropologist and one of those activists, says that a proper review must come from outside the museum.

“For goodness’ sake,” says Monteiro, “we’re talking about people’s ancestors and the harm that’s been done to them by these same institutions over generations.”

The controversy began in January, when ProPublica published a national investigation into organizations holding human remains of Indigenous people that hadn’t been made available for repatriation. The Mütter, with 54 pertinent remains, was named along with several other Philly museums. That day, Quinn instructed staffers to scrub the museum’s social media accounts and online resources of any examples of human remains. These included a YouTube series that had 13 million views. “We are actively moving away from any possible perception of spectacle, oddities, or disrespect of any type for the collections in our care,” Quinn wrote in a staff-wide email.

The scrubbing made Quinn seem more aligned with critics of the museum, many of whom view it as a sideshow, than with its supporters. Online fans were incensed. “She wants to sanitize the museum to deter us freaky goths, whom she sees as bad for the museum’s image. The museum has a giant colon, sweetpea,” tweeted a rankled supporter. Rumors swirled that Quinn had been hired by the board of the College to effectively shutter the museum and shift its collection to a non-public medical library.

On a humid day this past summer, Quinn met me for an interview and tried to dispel those rumors, joined by a PR pro specializing in crisis management. “Of course I don’t hate this place; I believe in this place,” Quinn told me, adding that the blowback over her temporary removal of online content (a third of which has since been reposted) took her by surprise. “I didn’t think it would happen this ­quickly — that this controversy would blow up so quickly, not over something so arguably trivial.”

Before we even sat down at a conference table, Quinn handed me a series of photographs of various dates — 1886, 1934, and finally 1984 — showing different iterations of the Mütter’s main gallery. She pointed out a large window that’s now covered by red velvet drapes and the absence of the museum’s current iconic red carpets, two changes from the ’80s that don’t sit well with her. “This institution made choices to have this 19th-­century display” — the drapes, the funeral-parlor aura — “really be the focus of your experience here.” The current aesthetic, Quinn implied, detracts from the educational experience.

If you believe human remains should not be in a museum, then don’t come and see them,” says Robert Hicks, a former Mütter director. “There are far more people interested in seeing them and studying them and extracting value for human health.”

Although beloved by fans, does the current atmosphere incline patrons to interrogate medical ethics of the past, or merely reinforce the want-to-see-a-dead-body exploitation, with the Mütter pushing tickets to the collections of body traffickers?

“If you believe human remains should not be in a museum, then don’t come and see them,” says Hicks. “There are far more people interested in seeing them and studying them and extracting value for human health.”

Before directing the Mütter for 11 years, Hicks had a career in law enforcement. In the 1990s, he trained officers in the state of Virginia on crimes involving archaeological and historic resources, a program he launched after learning about “relic ­hunting” — looting — of artifacts and body parts from graves of Indigenous people and Civil War battlefields. “I began to think, because of that work, that maybe we should not put any human remains in museums,” says Hicks. “I changed my mind after coming to the Mütter.”

What Hicks failed to appreciate at the time, he says, was the potential of the dead to help the living. Although the Mütter is no longer a teaching museum per se, the biorepository in its collection — which includes rarely preserved forms of DNA and injured tissue — continues to serve researchers. In his time as director, human remains at the Mütter were used by the Department of Defense to study shrapnel wounds and identify long-lost servicemen who turned up abroad, Hicks says. They’ve helped scientists understand cholera and other stubborn diseases. Even the Hyrtl collection, in the wake of the Yugoslav Wars in the ’90s, was studied by war-crimes investigators to identify Croats in mass graves. “You never know when the 21st century is going to crash in on you and discover that your collection is actually full of insights,” Hicks says. “There’s a good educational argument for perpetuating the collection.”

But does that require putting the human remains on display for middle-school field-trippers? Ticket sales and library services at the Mütter account for roughly a third of the income of the College of Physicians. Some of the most controversial parts of the collection — Einstein, the Soap Lady, Hyrtl’s skulls — also happen to be what brings people through the doors. “If the specimens go, the museum disappears,” says Hicks.

Two years ago, in a move aimed at mitigating public scrutiny, the museum switched up the Hyrtl display. The skulls were spaced more widely, and biographical details, including names, were added: Veronica Huber, Salzburg, aged 18, executed for murder of her child. The following explanatory note appeared: “Although collecting skulls was legal in Hyrtl’s time, the practice was discriminatory, non-­consensual, and degrading.”

Quinn sounded skeptical of the impact these attempts at context have provided. “Is it enough to just tell folks that this is how this body came into our building?” she asked. Quinn also noted that more recent donations that had enthusiastic consent will likely remain unchanged. But settling on an ethics policy, she believes, will set a precedent for other institutions around human remains. The Mütter “really is the biggest case study that you can have,” she said.

For now, Quinn has promised to consult with a range of experts and community members to arrive at an ethics policy to guide the museum going forward but has declined to offer specifics on her personal philosophy. In September, the museum announced a $285,500 grant from Pew to facilitate that process, which will include museum-hosted town halls and workshops. But her opponents point to Quinn’s mercurial past in the museum world and her leadership style as reasons to doubt she can lead those conversations.

After starting as an intern at the Penn Museum in 2006, Quinn was eventually promoted to director of exhibitions. There, she earned a reputation for ambitious design concepts and, at times, harsh treatment of staff and contractors. “She would humiliate employees in front of everyone and would not tolerate opposing opinions,” says Jesse Engaard, who worked in the exhibitions department. “Her goal was just to get visitors in the door to please the higher-ups and further her career.”

After 14 years at the Penn Museum, Quinn was named the director of Doylestown’s James A. Michener Art Museum, where she faced some of the same criticism. In one instance, a curator wrote a 25-page postmortem for a retrospective he’d put together, detailing what he considered Quinn’s overbearing touch. That included a change to the cover image for the show after Quinn, per the report, noted that the original, a painting of a sheep in a hood, conjured images of a Ku Klux Klan member. The change upset not only the curator but also the artist, who then refused to lend the piece to the museum.

Quinn dismissed the staff turnover at her previous stops, as well as at the Mütter, as the normal attrition that accompanies a leadership change. In response to accusations by anonymous staff that Quinn has berated employees and monitored their emails since taking over, she insisted those were “completely untrue” and offered her own explanation: The staff simply wasn’t accustomed to a leader willing to ask tough questions about the collection. “I think there’s a lot of unfamiliarity with what is a typical process in other places,” Quinn said of the culture of the museum. Complaints about her leadership, she said, are distractions from “the true work we need to be doing.”

When the Mütter was founded in 1863, the greatest skull collection in the world was housed only a few blocks away. One of the most accomplished American physicians of his generation, Samuel Morton amassed more than 1,000 skulls, often by stealing crania from one of the city’s only Black cemeteries, next to the Philadelphia almshouse, a charity hospital for Black and poor Philadelphians where Franklin Field sits today. Like many rich men of the time, he paid grave robbers to do this work, which fueled his research into ­phrenology — the bunk theory that human racial groups are separate species.

Halfway around the world, Joseph Hyrtl was arguing just the opposite, utilizing his skull collection to expose phrenology as a farce. “Before DNA, before Darwin, it was a scientific attempt [that ran] contrary to the thinking of that era,” Hicks says of Hyrtl’s work.

The Hyrtl collection isn’t just one of the oldest and most popular exhibits at the Mütter. It’s something of a Rorschach test for opinions about the place. “There’s a big difference between knowingly stealing remains from the graveyard across the street from the museum, whose descendants still live in the city, and the legal channels being followed in another country,” says Hanna Polasky, a former staffer at the Mütter, noting the differences she sees between the Morton and Hyrtl collections. Polasky now runs the Twitter account Protect the Mütter.

But does disproving racist ideas justify the means of collection, which are shameful today? And does it matter, as Polasky notes, that the Hyrtl skulls are “almost all white” rather than the remains of Black or Indigenous people?

For some observers, displaying skulls regardless of provenance is inherently problematic. “Museums in these colonial capitals, like Philadelphia, have cultivated this image of themselves as positive parts of the community and prestigious parts of the community, with a result that the average person, regardless of their politics, tends to have at least a semi-positive response to the idea of a museum,” says Monteiro, who’s one of two co-founders of the anti-racist, anti-colonial Philly group Finding Ceremony. “They don’t necessarily think a museum needs to be interrogated in any way [or] that everything they’re holding that belongs to other people is a problem.”

Others, though, including Hicks, insist that before anybody deconstructs the Mütter, there should be a global consensus on the role of human remains in museums. “What we have right now is a bunch of piecemeal things happening at different museums in response to different constituencies,” says Hicks, who calls for an international effort like that of UNESCO’s world heritage protections.

What Hicks and Monteiro both agree on, however, is that the future of the Mütter shouldn’t be left to the whim of any one person. “The director of the museum is, in some ways, just the most problematic public figure here,” says Monteiro. “They’re sitting on top of a building full of thousands of stolen ancestors and presenting themselves as if they’re the one who gets to decide what happens.”

In 1865, a line of 150,000 mourners stretched from roughly where the Mütter stands today to Independence Hall to view Abraham Lincoln’s corpse. Weeks earlier, Mary Lincoln’s desires for a swift burial had been overruled by cabinet officials who insisted on a multi-city funeral tour. But as the train journeyed northward, Lincoln’s body deteriorated in front of the crowds. His face darkened, purple splotches appeared on his skin, and his jaw dropped, exposing teeth. By the time the train reached Buffalo, midway through its itinerary, the New York Tribune’s Charles Page noted that onlookers were waiting in line out of “morbid curiosity alone.”

Some people say: If we start giving back everything to everybody, there’ll be nothing left at the museum, right?” says anthropologist Lyra Monteiro. “My answer to that is: Yep, that’s right.”

Lincoln’s assassination and the Mütter’s founding two years earlier came at a time when Philadelphia was rethinking its relationship to the dead. In 1867, the Pennsylvania legislature outlawed the medical field’s common practice of body snatching. Public executions had been banned decades earlier. And advances in hospital procedures made it more difficult for bones to wind up in private collections. At the dawn of the 20th century, museums became one of the last venues in which one could regularly interact with the dead.

Today, is there a civic purpose to displaying the dead? Answering that question depends on complex beliefs about the soul and the afterlife, even about what constitutes a dead “person” on display. (What about mummies? What about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?) Trying to come to any consensus can seem like a fraught, even futile, exercise.

For some people, the only way to foster respect and ethics is not to have any remains in the collection at all. “Some people say: If we start giving back everything to everybody, there’ll be nothing left at the museum, right?” says Monteiro. “My answer to that is: Yep, that’s right.”

That leads to an obvious question of what to do with the Mütter collection. After removing the online content, Quinn created a committee of historians, medical ethicists and advocates to advise the museum on what should stay up online and what should go. The larger holistic audit of its displays and archives will take an estimated 48 months. “The end goal, which is education, to expand knowledge — that has to be the forwarding principle,” Quinn says. “Does it means everything’s coming down permanently? No. Does it mean everything’s going back permanently? No. But it means something in between, and that’s what we’re working through.”

Meanwhile, in response to human-resources complaints about Quinn, the board of the College of Physicians hired an outside firm to interview staff. The board then scheduled a special meeting for September 14th (after this issue went to press) to discuss the results of the employee survey. [Editor’s note: After that meeting, the Board announced new HR measures, including an employee tip line.] The trustees have repeatedly backed Quinn, who, when asked in advance of the meeting whether she had any regrets, declined to walk back a single decision. “I don’t believe in regrets,” she says. “That’s just who I am as a person.”


Published as “The Mütter Problem” in the October 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine. Editor’s note: In late September, Mira Irons, CEO of the College of Physicians, announced she was resigning to return to Boston Children’s Hospital, where she worked previously as a physician, to become associate chief of genetics and genomics.