Those jarred babies — not quite jarring enough

As promised I made it to the Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, last week. Also known as the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography — the oldest museum in Russian, opened in 1727 — it’s also known to connoisseurs of the grisly and gross as the Great Hall of Deformed Human Fetuses in Jars (not really). It’s a delight.

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And yet there aren’t as many specimens as I was hoping for, nor was there much in the way of the truly macabre. A few tweaked human skeletons — that fella’s really gigantic — a two-headed stuffed fox and some rusty surgical tools complemented the array of squishy, floating babies. Those twisted wee ones delivered the goods, a frisson of the freakish that some of us crave.

I was expecting more in the way of anatomical and medical exhibits, but the museum is largely dopey ethnographical artifacts — Native American beads and pottery, African huts, Eskimo furs, in tiny dioramas — you can see at your local natural history museum, but newer and brighter. There’s just one small floor of jarred bambinos and gnarled bones. It’s up top. Follow the arrows, greedily.

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It’s pretty good — three stars — but not quite enough to nourish its reputation as a world-class repository of the ghastly. I went for the morbid, not the ethnography, and found myself in and out in 30 minutes or less.

Philadelphia has Kunstkamera beat. Its famed if smaller Mütter Museum is a richer, more concentrated, more intense experience: jarred fetuses; innumerable human skulls both ghoulish and elegiac; various startling skeletons of the diseased, deformed and degraded; cankered floating body parts; chilling surgical devices; and the topper, Chang and Eng’s death cast and conjoined livers.

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Giant’s skeleton at Kunstkamera Museum

I don’t want to knock its Russian counterpart, but the Mütter, as specifically a physician’s institution, is more complete and well-rounded, satisfying the more ambitious demands of creep-seekers. Kunstkamera is very much worth a visit — do go — but know its limitations. While it offers a world of wonder, the Mütter offers galaxies.

 

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A gallery of the ghoulish in Russia

If jarred fetuses bother you, if pickled body parts give you the heebie-jeebies, look away, click away. You have two seconds …

Let’s proceed.

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For my tiresomely upcoming trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, I’ve found the East’s beautiful cousin to America’s incomparable cathedral of the grisly, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. It’s the Kunstkamera Museum, aka the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. I have to quote the web to get it right and concise (apologies):

“The Kunstkamera is the first museum in Russia. Established by Peter the Great and completed in 1727, it hosts a collection of almost 2,000,000 items. Peter’s museum was a cabinet of curiosities dedicated to preserving ‘natural and human curiosities and rarities.’ “

OK. We got it. (Wait. Two million items? Yes!)

Now let’s get to jarred babies. To unvarnished ghoulishness. To this:

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I’ll get to more such stuff for you, via words and pictures, when I get there in a week or so. I imagine this is a mummy, or someone took a picture of me after last night’s bender.

Now some beauty before we all upchuck. The museum resides in a typically wedding-cakish palace-like edifice so common in St. Petersburg:

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Right, but let’s not forget its contents:

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Three heads are better than one.

Reviewing the museum online, a visitor notes that a highlight is the “fetus floor” (well, yeah); another notes the evocative scientific instruments (probably chilling in a “Dead Ringers” way); and yet one more declares: “After traveling over 50 countries, that’s the most bizzare thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s really gross.” (Jittery excitement.)

Why is this appealing? I can’t quite nail it, but I know it’s the same reason why wide-eyed, slack-jawed throngs packed freak shows of yore, why giggly gaggles of school children are whisked to the Mütter Museum, why macabre taxidermy and bone specimens are top sellers at the crowd-pleasing Evolution store in New York’s SoHo.

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We are curious about mystery, the outré, the weird and wondrous. We are strangely enriched and even, with a flinch, comforted confronting the repellent and gasp-inducing. It’s not a game. Gallows humor may tinge the experience — hey, that looks like Uncle Mike! — but it’s surely not ha-ha funny. It’s about expanding the mind and the world of earthly experience. It is, with a peculiar poignance, about us. 

Bound for St. Petersburg, Russia. Any tips?

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After some squinched-eyed consideration, I’ve elected St. Petersburg, Russia, for my annual fall journey.

Wise? A gaffe? Anyone?

It will be short — six days — but, from what I’ve gathered through meticulous research, that seems about right. The Hermitage Museum, the State Russian Museum, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, canal boat tours, the Peter and Paul Fortress and, naturally, the Russian Vodka Museum, to name a few must-dos. Plus the farm-to-table Cococo (anointed by Bourdain) and obligatory Mishka bar, among other hot spots for noshing and tippling.

My target dates are in mid-October, when the temps vary between the high-40s and low-50s F, my kind of climes (so long summer!). Eyeballing the way-off forecast, rain and snow aren’t slated to dampen things.

Has anybody been to St. Petersburg? Tips? Cautions? (Please tell me no more about obtaining an entry visa. So far it has been a nervous, expensive, off-putting ordeal.) Know any good cemeteries? Where to get a fine vodka tonic? Drop a line if you will, thanks! (Go to “Contact” at the top of page.)

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Gross anatomy: the marvelously macabre Mütter Museum

Pathologies are my thing. Twisted limbs. Fleshy protrusions. Faces swathed in nappy hair, Chewbacca-like. Conjoined twins. Horns curling from foreheads. Extra heads — those are always fun.

I don’t revel in the maladies of others; I revel in the Other. People are fascinating. People are more fascinating with three legs.

This foible of mine, this adorable morbidity, came early on, delighting my parents, who stood back, weighed adoption strategies and ever so gingerly catered to my wiggier curiosities. For my eighth birthday I requested and received the illustrated book “Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves and Triumphs of Human Oddities.” Since then, many have believed I belong in this book.

These outré fascinations have grown to include death and the dead, and have led me to abnormal forays in my frequent travels. There I was at the Royal London Hospital, sleuthing with the grace and aptitude of Inspector Clouseau for the skeleton of Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man. (Mission: failed.) At the Golders Green Crematorium in London I witnessed roaring ovens and jars of fresh ashes, some heartbreakingly labeled “baby.”

There was the blech-fest of the Meguro Parasitological Museum in Tokyo, where all squirm and squiggle of microbe-y monster were displayed in clear, fluid-filled cases, sometimes feasting on animal innards.

At the Museum of Forensic Medicine in Bangkok, medical students dissecting cadavers giggled when they saw me spying in the doorway, pointing my camera. I repaired upstairs to the musty exhibit of bottled fetuses, crumbling bones and full-length cadavers floating in dishwater liquid like humongous pickles.

My two noble efforts to see the freak show at Coney Island were thwarted by poor timing. Yanking on the bearded lady’s follicular abundance will have to wait.

Yet, for a constant traveler of my tastes and temperament, the Taj Mahal of the morbid has long been the famed Mütter Museum, a repository of anatomical horrors and shrine to primitive, rusty-tooled medicine in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. It is where, at last, after years gazing at its web site, I recently visited. Disappointment was not in the cards.

Part edifying scientific journey, part powerful appetite suppressant, the Mütter is smack in Philly’s city center, a brisk walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Inside, once through the deceptively donnish foyer, the museum is cool and musty, packed with old wood and glass cases revealing the historically pertinent — Florence Nightingale’s sewing kit — and the surgically slimy — a mammary tumor afloat in liquid, resembling a buttery dessert.

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Human skulls — some intact, some cracked or bullet-pocked — checker an entire wall, each tagged with the cause of death, be it hanging, suicide or disease. The brownish heads came to the Mütter from Central and Eastern Europe in 1874, a major acquisition for the medical institute, which boasts 62,000 visitors a year, many of them children on school field trips. (I want to go to their school.)

Founded in 1849 and named 10 years later for surgery professor Thomas Dent Mütter, the museum throws open in graphic, naturalistic detail the ranging possibilities of the human body, and the havoc that can befall it from within and without. Diseases, injuries, birth defects — it’s an elaborate temple to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Much of it is not pretty. This is a given. It can be ghastly, grisly, unimaginable. (The “wet specimens” section is home to a jar labeled “Moist Gangrene of the Hand.” In it sits a human hand rotted black, the skin tattered like a torn leather glove, bones poking from the wrist.)

But to merely recoil at the exhibits is to shut out a world of contemplation, and to allow an emotional reflex to override a rare opportunity for understanding.

Not that emotions wither in the objective, secular hothouse of science and medicine. We are human, after all. And the museum unpeels the tangible layers of our humanness, down to the bones in many cases.

Strolling the more than 3,500 square feet of tidy halls and floors, I experienced kaleidoscopic feelings, be it excitement or queasiness or, in the presence of deformed human fetuses, such as the child with “46 twists in the umbilical cord,” great sadness at life so cruelly muffled before it even whimpered.

The upward of 1,700 sticky specimens — a sliver of John Wilkes Booth’s thorax; a full skeleton encrusted in its owner’s ossified sinew and organs — and 20,000 objects — an archaic penile syringe, leech jar and bleeding bowl — demand gawkers to question our flesh-and-blood frailty and peer across the accepted borders of what constitutes normalcy.

Some guests will ponder God’s inscrutable will and the crap-shoot of birth; others might mull our fleshly finiteness, staring at them at every turn, and thank their lucky stars.

“The museum challenges visitors in a way that few American museums do,” says Dick Levinson, Mütter spokesman. “It’s impossible to visit here without confronting issues of sickness, mortality and human sexuality. We’re the museum young people love because we don’t preach, we don’t sugarcoat and we have no agenda except for allowing the voice of science to speak.”

That voice speaks loudly, but with fitting respect and as much dignity as a naked cadaver can possess. There’s humor in the macabre, as horror movies show, so a giggle of shock or a throwaway quip (“Hey, Tom, that skull has your cheekbones”) won’t ruffle the contemplative oxygen of the galleries. It eases the mood. Remember, school kids come here. By now, them bones and body parts understand the various responses of the living to the so forthrightly dead.

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Some of us get giddier than others at such places. I was most thrilled that the autopsy of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, was performed at the Mütter in the 1870s, and that the museum kept some nifty souvenirs for display. I examined the plaster cast of the twins’ bound torsos and, below it, their connected liver, a chalky, scabby island bobbing in a pan of fluid.

That’s an island this world traveler and seeker of the strange calls one thing: paradise.