Curious Collections

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

America's weird museums

by Laura Hayes

Medical Marvels

Mutter Museum
Philadelphia, Pa.

Philadelphia's Mutter Museum comprises large and historically significant collections. These include hundreds of fluid-preserved anatomical and pathological specimens, 10,000+ medical instruments and apparati, anatomical and pathological models, items of memorabilia of famous scientists and physicians, and medical illustrations. The Mutter Museum is also home to a plethora of what were once quaintly referred to as freaks.

Gawk at the plaster cast of famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng and their actual attached liver(s?)! Fear the grotesque giant colon! Marvel at the granddaddy of swallowed-object collections! Wonder why the museum only has the thorax of John Wilkes Booth.

Personal favorites are the Muniz collection of trepanated Peruvian skulls and the "soap woman." The "soap woman" died of yellow fever and was buried in soil containing chemicals that turned her body to soap.

National Museum of Health & Medicine
Washington, D.C.

The National Museum of Health & Medicine was founded by the U.S. Army during the Civil War. It has a lot in common with Philadelphia's Mutter Museum. Both have extensive collections of educational and historically valuable objects. Both also have a collection of medical curiosities, and both have pieces of John Wilkes Booth (coincidently, the museum was originally housed in Ford's Theatre).

The military origin of the museum is evident in two exhibits. The Korean Conflict exhibit features an artificial kidney machine used in the field and the actual eyeglasses used by "Radar O'Reilly" on TV's M*A*S*H. The small Civil War collection contains skeletons of soldiers as well as illustrations and photos of wounds.

Other highlights include live leeches, the world's most comprehensive collection of microscopes dating to the 1600s, "Anatifacts" such as a giant tumor and a stomach-shaped hairball, and bits and pieces of famous Americans—vertebrae of John Wilkes Booth and James Garfield, and the bullet that killed Lincoln.

Glore Psychiatric Museum
St. Joseph, Mo.

The Glore Psychiatric Museum brings to life the glorious history of psychiatric treatment through diaramas, models, and reproductions. The earliest form of therapy seems to have been administered with a sharp stick or club. By the Middle Ages treatment encompassed public humiliation, dunking, blistering, the ever-popular bleeding, and burning at the stake. Fortunately, by the 20th century, psychiatric treatment had evolved to include icy baths, tranquilizers, vibrating chairs, and electroshock therapy.

Some of the more interesting objects on display include the tranquilizer chair, a things-swallowed-by-patients exhibit, and a giant hamster wheel for especially energetic patients.

Kalaupapa National Historical Park/Hansen's Disease Leper Colony
Kalaupapa, Hawaii

Fortunately, you can learn about medical history in the great outdoors as well as in dark musuems packed with jars. If you're ever on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, book a mule ride down to the Kaulapapa Hansen's Disease Leper Colony. The ride is not for the timid, as the mules take you down a steep cliff to the colony, some 1,600 feet below.

The U.S. Park Service conducts tours of the facility, which was created in 1865 when the Kingdom of Hawaii instituted a century-long policy of quarantine of persons afflicted with Hansen's disease. Perhaps the most noteworthy resident was Belgian priest Father Damien, who treated the sick and acted as an advocate for the community until he died from complications of the disease. You can visit the chapel he was originally buried in. His body was actually moved to Belgium, but his right hand was sent back to Kalaupapa as a relic.

More Museums

Sources +