The first appointed director Mütter Museum enters the post-pandemic world

For the first time since its founding in 1863, the Mütter Museum on 22nd Street south of Market Street, part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, has hired an executive director to focus solely on the museum, its historic medical library, its research arm, and its future.

Kate Quinn, most recently director of the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, and for nearly 15 years director of exhibitions and special programs at the Penn Museum, will join an institution that has a burgeoning reputation as a cabinet of medical curiosities in its own right. . Einstein’s brain, Hyrtl’s collection of skulls, the Soap Lady (she’s encased in adipocere, “cemetery grease”), President Grover Cleveland’s preserved jaw tumor, plus joint skeletons and strange organs aplenty have driven the museum’s growing number of visitors, which reached around 180,000 in 2019.

That’s when Dr. George Wohlreich, president and CEO of the college, announced a $25 million expansion campaign for the cramped museum and library. By mid-year, around 75% of funds had been raised.

Then came the pandemic.

The election campaign has been suspended. Dr. Wohlreich retired in 2021. And Dr. Mira Irons, a pediatric geneticist, took over as head of the college, a non-profit organization (founded in 1787) dedicated to advancing the cause of health while defending the ideals and heritage of medicine.

Dr. Irons determined that the pandemic has changed the public landscape to the extent that Mütter and the College of Physicians need to reevaluate how to move forward. One of his first acts was to hire Quinn.

“We are at an important turning point in the college’s history,” said Dr. Irons. “We strive to increase the accessibility of our offerings, play a leadership role among our peers by addressing ethical issues, and increase our visibility around the world.

In an interview on Wednesday, Dr Irons said “the pandemic has taught us many things” – including the need to rethink approaches to operations.

“One of the things it taught us is to look at things differently,” she said. “You have to think outside the box, and that’s what we do. I am a doctor, museums and libraries are my passion. But I also believe in expertise and I think that by bringing Kate Quinn into the team, she has expertise in those specific areas of knowledge.

The college’s museum, historical library, educational programs for youth and underrepresented groups are critical to the college’s success, she said. Quinn will oversee all of these activities and will also help “integrate the arts and humanities into our programming, and work with our public health staff to really focus on public health issues and educate the public.”

For her part, Quinn said she had “some idea of ​​what draws people who don’t go to museums” to the Mütter,

with more informed analysis to come. But based on her experience growing up in working-class Delco, where the Mütter was “the number one choice” when it comes to museums, she said she believes the “idea of ​​the fantastical” is the biggest draw. most powerful in the museum.

“We see body parts that you can’t see and it’s awesome, and it’s amazing,” she said. “I think there’s something about this dive into the fantastical that you can’t find anywhere else.” The Mütter is “where you can see tumors and you can see hearts, you can see brains. You can see a lot of aspects that harm human health, in a way that you can’t see anywhere else, I think. Fantastic is what people are drawn to. And I believe that can still be what happens in a 22nd century museum.

Dr Irons said the capital building plan and subsequent fundraising is currently being evaluated, particularly following what the pandemic has demonstrated about digital potential. That said, some “building upgrades” are underway that involve work in the basement storage areas of the historic South 22nd Street building.

Visitor press remains a problem. But Dr Irons said the importance of timed tickets was another important lesson about the pandemic.

“I think having more space, or different kinds of space, actually allows us to do different things,” she said. The appearance of the cabinet of curiosities may be a big part of the Mütter’s appeal, but there are different types of museum spaces “that can actually attract people who would never think of coming here,” he said. she declared.

“I would like to open the doors to more people in Philadelphia. I would like to bring more children into the museum. There are so many stories we can tell.

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