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Extraordinary Bodies: Photographs from the Mütter Museum

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 2/22/2006

Extraordinary Bodies: Photographs from the Mütter Museum

At UMBC’s Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery through March 12

Thomas Dent Mütter’s collection of medical aberrations was never intended as a freak show. It was an archive for the elucidation of physicians in training—and when a specimen couldn’t be pickled in formaldehyde, a photograph would provide the next best record. These photos, usually taken by portraitists (the specialty of most professionals of the era), now stand juxtaposed with contemporary photographers’ reinterpretations of the museum’s solid artifacts in the noteworthy Extraordinary Bodies: Photographs From the Mütter Museum.

Despite the antiseptic objectivity of the archival photos, there is a classical nobility to their subjects. The “lucky” first successful triple amputee in the United States is posed for posterity on a low pedestal, an oilcloth backdrop behind him simulating woodland. Nude, well-muscled, and dignified, he resembles a Greek statue whose marble limbs were similarly amputated by time. Likewise, a young girl born with proto-thalidomide flippers instead of legs poses on a tabletop, her serene face and silvery skin reminiscent of a mermaid half-emerged from water. These photos could almost be from an undiscovered track of the same-era genre of spirit photography, recording not fairies or ghosts, but chimerical humans blessed in their tragic uniqueness.

Pleasingly, the contemporary photographs dovetail beautifully with the archival pictures. Steven Katzman’s arrangement of dried dahlias filling the brainpan of an anatomically dissected skull is quite beautiful, the desiccated flowers a poetic visualization of memories now dried and preserved with the rest of the specimen. A group of eight fetal skeletons photographed by Gwen Akin and Allan Ludwig captures their sweetness. Unlike adult skulls forced into frantic leers by their full mouthful of teeth, the infants’ toothless jaws close bone-to-bone into happy baby smiles, equal measure grisly and adorable. Even works by Joel-Peter Witkin (a no-brainer inclusion for the curator) eschew shock in favor of mystery and macabre beauty.

The only exception to the prevailing mood of respect and dignity are William Wegman’s contributions. He’s chosen to pose one of his ubiquitous Weimaraners perching a back leg on a jar containing a pickled human foot (the animal assuming a pose familiar to owners of male dogs) and another with the canine’s nose buried in a pelvis, as if not even death can keep dogs from sniffing your crotch. Compared to the reverence shown the other artifacts, they seem vulgar and unkind.

That small party foul aside, the remainder of the exhibit is honest, sacred, profound, poignant, and sublime. The truth of the allure is summed up by the museum’s late director Gretchen Worden in a quote silk-screened on the gallery wall: “In most museums you go to look at objects. In the Mütter Museum, sometimes the objects seem to be looking at you.”

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