Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum Takes Down Digital Resources

5:02 minutes

Human skeletons inside glass jars, reaching out trying to free themselves from the inside.
Illustration by KL Murphy, for Science Friday

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This article is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Alan Yu, was originally published by WHYY.

Robert Pendarvis gave his heart to Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. Literally.

He has a rare condition called acromegaly, where his body makes too much growth hormone, which causes bones, cartilage and organs to keep growing. The condition affected his heart, so much so that a heart valve leaked. He had a heart transplant in 2020.

Pendarvis thought his original heart could tell an important story, and teach others about this rare condition, which is why he was determined to put it on display at the Mütter Museum.

The Mütter Museum is a Philadelphia institution, a medical museum that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to its rooms filled with anatomical specimens, models, and old medical instruments. The place is not for the squeamish. Display cases show skulls, abnormal skeletons, and a jar containing the bodies of stillborn conjoined twins.

Pendarvis thought it would be the perfect home for his heart — and more.

“I wanted to give my skeleton if I died because of the acromegaly information that they have at the museum. That was what was important,” he said.

A curator at the museum interviewed him and put a video about him and his old heart on their YouTube channel. Pendarvis still sees doctors regularly, and whenever he meets a new healthcare provider, he shows them the video as a way of explaining his complex health history.

But a few months ago, he noticed that the video had disappeared without a trace.

“It’s a little frustrating because I use Mütter museum’s website … to tell practitioners and nurses about me.”

And beyond doctors and nurses, he said people in the patient community know about him because of the Mütter Museum’s video of his heart, which is exactly what he had in mind when he made his donation.

“I did have to sign legal paperwork saying it belonged to them so they could do what they want to do with it. But for them to bury it in their archives so soon after I gave it to them would really be an injustice.”

And it appears that the museum itself has had a change of heart about its role, what it presents and how. It’s not just Pendarvis’ video that has vanished: all of the museum’s online exhibits and YouTube videos are gone. The Mütter Museum’s YouTube channel has more than 100,000 subscribers.

There has been an ongoing, broader discussion in the museum world around displaying human remains, which has brought up some difficult questions many institutions are grappling with.

Read the rest of this story on WHYY’s website.

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Alan Yu

Alan Yu is a science reporter for WHYY’s The Pulse in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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