Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Chang and Eng In a Jar

By Beth Terrell

A few years ago, four colleagues and I went on a business trip to New Jersey. This was an exceptionally good business trip, because not only were we all friends, we also had similar interests and travel styles. We spent our days doing enjoyable work with good people and our evenings discovering such treasures as The Chocolate Cottage and The Parrot Place and giggling at the unusual business names (Gimpy's Funeral Home), the high number of strip clubs in the vicinity of our hotel, and the apparent inability of New Jersey-ites (New Jerseyans?) to make a left-hand turn. Only one of us had ever heard of, much less seen, a "jug-handle," and the one time we had to make five right-hand turns in order to turn left left us giddy. We loved it, from the 50's-style diners to the treasure trove of magazines on "Weird New Jersey." (We picked up a whole set, on the theory that they were chock-full of story ideas. Hey, maybe I should have written them off on my taxes!) Every night, we went to a different restaurant, each with delicious food and appalling service. Good thing we liked each other; none of our meals was less than an hour and a half long, most of that spent waiting on the server.

All in all, it was a delightful trip. But the high point of it didn't take place in New Jersey. It was on the last day, when we had almost a full day to call our own, and Cindi suggested we spend it in Philadelphia at the Mutter Museum of Medical Oddities. (To say Cindi loves museums would be an understatement; she once refused to enter the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History on the premise that she would never leave it and would have to live the rest of her life on food from the museum cafe.)

The rest of us were equally game, especially after hearing the rumor that the museum had Chang and Eng, history's most famous conjoined twins, in a jar. I have always been intrigued by conjoined twins, and while I realized there was probably something disrespectful about the public exhibition of their preserved body/bodies, if the museum really did have Chang and Eng in a jar, by George, I wanted to see it.

All I can say, is, if you've never been to the Mutter Museum, and if you are interested in the human condition (and what writer isn't?), then you should make it a point to put it on your list of must-sees. We got there early in the afternoon, and they practically had to push us out the door at closing time. This tiny museum was packed with stories, more than 20,000 artifacts, each one a glimpse into the web of life, death, and--if to be remembered is to live forever--immortality.

It is impossible to go through this exhibit without being forever changed by it. We are fearfully and wonderfully made; yet, there are so many ways the human body can go awry. Like the man whose 9-foot colon is one exhibit, looking, as one viewer phrased it, "like a sandworm from Dune." Looking at pictures of his distended belly, one can only imagine how it must have felt to go through life carrying this monstrous impaction.

There were wax models of flayed bodies, jars of miscarried infants at various stages of development and with a variety of medical conditions, a collection of objects (buttons, wedding rings, safety pins) taken from the windpipes of choking people, side-by-side plaster casts of a person with giantism and a person with dwarfism, a collection of medical instruments used throughout history, a collection of tumors and syphlitic organs, the brain of a murderer, and medical photographs taken to show the symptoms of a variety of medical conditions, including a wealth of information on conjoined twins.

Many of these exhibits are disturbing and haunting. The one that left the most lasting impression for me was a wall of skulls. Each was labeled with what was known about the person it had once belonged to. Most of them seemed so small. Some of the labels had only dates. Others had smidgens of personal information, like the thirteen-year-old boy who had killed himself over "a discovered theft" or the soldier found on a Roman battlefield. It struck me as terribly sad that this was all that was left of them. Then I realized that most people never even get this much. Here on this wall, there is some bond forged between me and a man who lived 2,000 years ago.

No, they didn't have Chang and Eng in a jar. They had a plaster cast of the twins and the preserved wedge of flesh, complete with attached livers, that had joined them. But after being immersed in so many stories, how could we have been disappointed?


Cindi said...

That was a great museum. I thought most about how the remains of a human body can be preserved in a way that memorializes the person and is a relic or makes the person anonymous and is a specimen or exhibit -- there was a lot of stuff at the Mutter that was somewhere in between. The wall of skulls impressed me, too. You think of a skull as an iconic image, but then you see alot of them together and they're all so different from one another. I am featuring skulls on today and tomorrow.

Fran Rizer said...

Thanks for an interesting column!
The Mutter Museum is on my "bucket list" and I hope to get there this year.

Jaden Terrell said...

Cindi, as usual, you've described it perfectly. I know I mentioned this in the blog, but I was surprised at how small so many of the skulls, especially the older skulls were. They had adult proportions, but unless you really explored that, they looked like children. Thanks for suggesting we go.

Fran, if you ever do get a chance to go there, by all means do. It will definitely give you some things to think about.

And everybody, if you get a chance, check out Cindi's blog. The skulls are good, but my current favorites are the mother and baby elephants.