Exquisite Corpses: Our Dialogue with the Dead in Museums

Robert D. Hicks, Director of the Mütter Museum and Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

November 20, 2013 at 6:30 pm, UM Museum of Art Helmut Stern Auditorium

Images of post mortem human remains are fascinating and disquieting. They amuse children at Halloween and disturb adults when on display at museums. Today’s omnipresent imagery of people doing everything at all times has not accustomed us to depictions of human mortality. The dead are speedily removed from view, and our direct contact with the dead is limited and controlled. Although mortal images can arouse empathy and may develop tolerance for a spectrum of human physical variation, other cultural voices argue for proscription and censure.

This presentation explores our dialogue with post mortem human imagery by examining its relationship to politics and ownership of the dead. The collections of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia form a backdrop to this dialogue and illustrate the contradictory and challenging messages anatomical displays convey to visitors. The presentation incorporates perspectives drawn from anthropology, art criticism, history, museum curatorship, and criminal justice, and suggests how museums with pathological anatomical collections might re-invent themselves.

Robert D. Hicks, PhD is the director of the Mütter Museum and Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Formerly, he supervised exhibits, collections, and educational outreach at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. He has worked with museum-based education and exhibits for over three decades, primarily as a consultant to historic sites and museums. Robert has a doctorate in maritime history from the University of Exeter, United Kingdom, and degrees in anthropology and archaeology from the University of Arizona. His most recent book is Voyage to Jamestown: Practical Navigation in the Age of Discovery (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2011)