Monday, January 10, 2011

Anti-Miracles at the Mütter

By John Jude Palencar

As artists we all strive in some way portray the human body in all of its beauty and symmetry - a true miracle of complexity and balance. That being said... we can also learn and gain insight into human anatomy by the study of anomalies and mutation or what I like to call “anti-miracles”. In fact by viewing deformities, whether caused by disease, faulty genes or a host of other factors we can better understand what makes a superbly drawn figure work. The symmetry and proportion of a normal human body is taken for granted but many things can go wrong during the development of a fetus, the onslaught of disease , the intrusion of dangerous pathogens, parasites or genetic mutation.

A few years ago during my visit to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pa. I met Brandon Zimmerman, a former student at the University of the Arts. He worked at the Mütter Museum and invited to give me a tour of the museum and a behind the scenes look into their collection. I jumped at the chance to visit this mythic collection that I had seen on the Discovery channel years earlier. Brandon is now employed by the Natural History Museum in Philadelphia.

Lets just say that if you haven’t heard of the Mütter, you should put it on your list of places to see. They are “artist friendly” so bring you sketchbook. Much can be learned from the study of their rare collection of specimens. Here are a couple of photographs to stir your curiosity. Currently there is an interview on the Mütter’s website with filmmakers/ animators, the Quay Brothers.

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, founded in 1787, is the oldest professional medical organization in the country. Twenty-four physicians of eighteenth-century Philadelphia gathered "to advance the science of medicine and to thereby lessen human misery."

The Mütter Museum is located in the building that houses The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and is opened to the public.

Please visit their website for more information, vid clips and ongoing exhibitions:

JJP and Brandon Zimmerman


  1. Thanks so much, that site is going right in my reference file!

  2. Thanks for this post.

    btw Mütter is German and means "mothers".

  3. I didn't even know there was such a museum! The next time I visit relatives in PA I'll be stopping by. Thanks!

  4. My school had a recent gallery showing called Anatomica Aesthetica that showcased photographs from the Mutter Museum along with H. F. Aitken's Illustrations from the Dittrick Medical History Center.

    The photographs of museum artifacts were breathtaking to say the least. Definatly want to visit one day.

  5. I've lived in Philadelphia for the last 5 years and have only gone to the Mutter once! Seeing this post reaffirms the fact that another visit is due and I'll be sure to bring my sketchbook to do some life... er, I mean unlife drawing.

  6. in 2003 I visited a university near Amsterdam (forget which one - Lieden? Utrecht?) And they had an amazing collection of similar stuff. I went with Kevin Llewellyn who had stumbled onto it while searching out a historic circus collection or some such. We spent a bit of time sketching there, and it ranks in the top 5 life changing days of my life. Watching his devotion to studying life was a revelation to me fresh out of high school with no grounding in art, and it set the course of my life to come. The experience stays with me to this day and I think continues to define some of the avenues of enquiry i pursue.
    Kevin went back to complete some more refined studies (on location i believe? probably completed in studio but not sure). You can see some of them on his website -

    Maybe next time im in the states i'll make a trip to the Mutter, never know who I'll bump into ;)


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