Three skeletons in a row

By Nikki Johnson

Photographer Nikki Johnson was given free rein to explore these restricted areas and create images of objects, specimens, and spaces that intrigued her. The result of her work is Unseen

The Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has attracted people interested in pathology, morbid anatomy, and human development since its opening in 1859. However, even repeat visitors may be unaware that only a fraction of the museum’s collection of 35,000 objects and specimens is on display at any given time; the remainder is hidden away in storage rooms that are scattered around the building and closed to the public. Some of the specimens are not displayed because they have a similar pathology to items already shown. Others are fragile or need extensive conservation. The collection grew over the years as items were acquired from other, defunct institutions, the personal collections of retired physicians, or occasionally via donation from private individuals.  

Unseen: Photography Exhibit Virtual Tour

The text Unseen Photography Virtual Tour alongside an image collage

The Wet Room is filled with tissue samples in glass jars preserved with ethanol (alcohol) or other solutions. 

The Wet Room contains several thousand pieces of tissue soaked in ethanol, formalin, or other solutions to prevent decomposition. The wet collection includes some anatomic specimens, dissected to highlight normal human structures, but most are pathologic specimens that illustrate the effects of disease and trauma on the body. Neoplasms (abnormal cell growth), cysts, and teratological (birth defects) specimens, which make up the bulk of the collection, require frequent attention to prevent degradation. A few of the specimens in the wet room were part of the original donation to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia by Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter to create the museum in 1859.

The Bone Room is home to both anatomic and pathologic skeletal preparations. 

The Bone Room stores both complete articulated skeletons and individual bones. Some of the specimens were acquired through an exchange of specimens with the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland. Much of this exchange occurred more than 100 years ago with somewhat spotty record keeping. Nevertheless, staffers and researchers can usually determine the origin by looking at the hardware on which the specimens are mounted, or hand-written notes scrawled by the curators on the specimens themselves. The museum continues to loan specimens of interest to other museums for display.

The Stacks are seven floors of medical texts and items donated to the museum that cannot be displayed in the main galleries, but do not require special storage. 

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia constructed this building between 1908 and 1909. The design included space for the library and the museum. As a result, a unique architectural feature is the center of this three-story building, which contains seven levels of stacks with glass floors and ornate wrought-iron shelving. The stacks contain the bulk of the library’s collection. As the museum’s collection grew, the library offered part of the sixth floor to house miscellaneous items such as plastinated anatomic specimens, small medical equipment, wax models, and assorted medical objects.