Tuesday, August 27, 2002

We Seem to Be Taking a Morbid Turn Here
(This entry not for the squeamish. Be warned.)

But what the hell. It's a good article on one of my favorite places in Philadelphia. There's even a picture. (Not gruesome; actually rather peaceful.)

Then there's the Mütter Museum — considered by cognoscenti one of the strangest of all of the museums in Philadelphia and right up there with the weirdest in the world. (Roadside America loves it.) But the Mütter Museum doesn't just gratify sick curiosity to see what weird things people swallow or inhale. (There's a vast, many-drawered cabinet with Dr. Chevalier Jackson's collection of items he removed from luckless patients.) It’s almost like a church of medicine — or, no, some other sacred ground: a battlefield, perhaps. A monument to defeat.

The Mütter Museum (such an appropriate name) maintains the dignity of its patients. It's never mocking or cruel; its hushed and reverent atmosphere is the opposite of a freak show. Like a good mother, it loves and cherishes even the strangest of its progeny. And I feel a weird tenderness for these carefully preserved anomalies.

The skeletal babies particularly draw me. They have such serene little smiles — an effect of toothless jaws meeting, but whatever the reason, they all have the air of elderly gurus too wise to speak. With their huge eye sockets and appealing smiles, they hit all my instinctive baby-loving buttons, the ones that get me cooing and babbling over friends' babies, friends' babies' toes, and even the baby-shoe displays at KMart. (Not that any friends will let me near their babies after reading this.)

One of the sets of conjoined twins is especially dear to me. The baby was born with one head, faced forward, and two perfect little bodies facing one another in an endless, motionless waltz. That solitary, dual, dancing child — children, really — can be seen as a symbol of the Self and the Shadow. But they are also, quite clearly, dead babies. Some woman bore them in pain and grieved their misery and loss. Promise unfulfilled, hope turned to despair. Yet the baby dances alone and smiles as if she had a secret.

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