More Mütter to love: Fulfillment of a dream
■ A new gallery, inspired by the museum's long-time curator, expands the space for displays both clinical and curious.
By Bonnie Booth — Posted Aug. 8, 2005
There was no end to the lengths Gretchen Worden would go to promote her beloved Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
She created museum calendars, lectured around the world and appeared on radio and television. She may have reached some of her largest audiences on the "Late Show with David Letterman."
College of Physicians of Philadelphia President Arthur Asbury, MD, said Worden and Letterman had the same wry sense of humor.
"You could tell by the grin on her face that she was up to something," Dr. Asbury said. "She would demonstrate how a stone breaker, used to break up stones in the bladder, worked. It would make a cracking sound and [Letterman] would grimace and flinch. It made wonderful theater.
"She was the one who brought news of the Mütter Museum to the world," he added.
It is only fitting then that the museum's new gallery, which unofficially opened July 1, is named the Worden Gallery. Spreading the word about the new space, however, will fall to someone else. Worden died Aug. 2, 2004, following a brief illness. She was 57 years old.
The gallery is a seamless addition to the museum, with the same carpeting, and refinished wooden and glass display cases that are 100 years old.
Laurie Grant, director of marketing and development at the College, said the extra space gives the museum an opportunity to display artifacts that have been held in storage for as long as 20 years.
"It was Gretchen's dream," Grant said.
The exhibit is designed to explore the historic use of wet and dry specimens, paper mâche models, lantern slides and x-rays as medical teaching tools. It will also briefly examine the history and purpose of medical museums.
That description might sound a bit dry to people who have visited the museum, slightly less than half who did so for a look at the unusual and sometimes downright creepy. Still, they need not worry. The gallery has its share of items guaranteed to make visitors pause, including many specimens that have been preserved in fluid.
The centerpiece is the body-of-parts exhibit -- a case in the middle of the room that visitors can walk around and see the various parts of the human body.
Worden did not shy away from the museum's reputation, acknowledging that many of its items weren't just strange to the public but to physicians as well. But she was also a firm believer in the artifacts' power as educational tools. The new gallery embodies that belief.
"Our audience tends to skew young," Grant said. "This exhibit helps show the spectrum of the human body. As we have school tours, it gives those approaching adolescence a wide spectrum of the human experience."
Worden worked nearly 30 years at the museum. It was the only job she ever had. She was hired as a curatorial assistant in 1975, became curator in 1982 and director of the museum in 1988.
Much of the cost of the expansion was funded by contributions to a fund set up after her death.
Worden is credited with making the museum what it is today -- a unique collection of the historical and the macabre visited by 65,000 annually.