If you’ve been to Philadelphia, chances are you’ve visited the Liberty Bell or climbed up the Rocky steps at the Museum of Art.  But are you a visitor who prefers unusual or weird sights?  While living in Paris as a kid, my mom took a group of us to visit the Musée des Égouts (yes, the Sewer Museum!), and I loved it! So in the spirit of adventure, let’s explore the two high ranking Philadelphia sights that attract visitors who want something different from the typical sights:  The Mütter Museum and Eastern State Penitentiary.

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Mütter Museum

Philadelphia's Mütter Museum

Officially known as The Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, this facility and the back areas still serve as teaching areas. With a catch phrase like “disturbingly informed” featured on the outdoor posters, I expected an assortment of gruesome tools and dead body parts a la Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

The small gallery off the main lobby featured an exhibit of body sketches made by quilling. Standing back from the art, you think that parts are drawn or colored in, but a closer look reveals the organs are composed of hundreds and thousands of small paper quills. As someone who did a bit of quilling back in my scrapbooking days, I admire the amount of work it took to create these amazing works of arts!

Philadelphia Quilling exhibit
Traverse of human torso.
Philadelphia quilling details
Quilling taken to the expert level!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Main Display Area

The main display area spreads over two floors connected by an internal staircase. Beginning in the upstairs area, the displays highlight surgical and medical innovations. My favorite part of the upstairs display was a wall of skulls with short phrase descriptions like: 36 year-old male, soldier, died of shotgun wound, etc. But quite honestly, I was much more intrigued by what was happening downstairs when I heard one of the guides asking a family if they wanted to see her favorite display. That question triggered my FOMO and I quickly made my way downstairs!

Display in Philadelphia's Mütter Museum

The downstairs contains LOTS of actual body parts displayed as “wet samples” in glass jars filled with preservatives. The guide’s favorite display contained a tool created by a doctor to remove items swallowed by patients without cutting them open. The drawers underneath the tool held the thousands of items recovered from patients – from coins to pins to various jewelry items. The guide pointed out to me that several displays have a card and if you call the phone number and input the number of the display, you get an audio tour of the place. So don’t forget to bring your cell phones! But if you plan on sharing the audio, be considerate and bring headphones because you cannot play the audio on speaker.

Overall Impression

Although I wouldn’t choose to have my wedding here (yes, like a lot of museums you can rent it out) it was absolutely worth the visit and I would go again! The Mütter rotates the additional exhibits in an upstairs gallery – when we visited, an exhibit addressed the beliefs over the years and cultures over children born imperfect – with either physical deformities or conjoined twins. Another exhibit discussed medical issues related to battlefield medicine during the Civil War.  I wasn’t very interested in seeing slides of Einstein’s brain (it’s a slide after all), but I thought it was fascinating that someone had donated that to the museum. Overall, they truly live up to their slogan, “Disturbingly Informed.”

Visit their website for updated calendar of events and more details: www.müttermuseum.org.

Details

Philadelphia organs stuffed toys
Even the plushies in the gift shop are various organs!

Open daily from 10 am to 5 pm, the museum closes only on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s. Day Tickets for adults cost $18, $13 for youth, and children 5 and under are free.  A few discounts are available, reducing the fee to $13 for students, $15 for military and $16 for seniors 65 and up. A $2 discount on Mondays and Tuesdays is available if purchased in person. I also like that a Pennsylvania ACCESS Card with photo ID allows a person and up to four family members to receive admission for $2! It makes me happy seeing an organization that removes the barrier of income to access its programs!

A few things to note:

  • Photographs can be taken in the downstairs lobby, gallery and gardens.  Request special permission ahead of time to photograph the main exhibit areas.
  • This exhibition is not appropriate for young children. It could be disturbing to some young children (and adults) because of the large number of fetuses and body parts on display.
  • Leave backpacks in your vehicle.
  • Use one of the lockers provided for 25 cents as a secure location for bags (also a great place to leave your coats so you don’t have to carry them around!).

Eastern State Penitentiary

Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary

Closed in 1971, Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary has been abandoned ever since.  While small groups began touring in 1988, daily tours commenced in 1994. Today, it houses art exhibits created by former and current prisoners addressing themes related to incarceration.  You can read more about that here. Consistent with the information center’s focus on prison reform, the exhibits advocate for a reduction in incarcerations. The center touts programs in various states that have successfully reduced both the prison population and violent crime rates.

The facility was built based on the approach that prisoners should be isolated to reflect on their actions.  Eastern State highlighted the “penance” portion of “penitentiary.”  The structure is a wheel – housing the guard areas in the middle with the spokes containing individual cells with solid doors dotted down long corridors. Contributing to the silence, guards wore socks over their shoes so that prisoners didn’t even know when others were around.  The isolation caused many prisoners to lose their minds.

Over the years and with a growing prison population, additional spokes were added.  Instead of the heavy doors, the more traditional bar doors were added and prisoners began sharing cells. Nevertheless, the concrete floor rendered the inside cold in the winter and steaming in the summers. One of the claims to fame of this facility is that Al Capone served some time here.  His cell is one of the stops on the tour.

Overall Impression

Philadelphia Eastern State Penitentiary
Incarceration statistics graph.

Eastern State provides an audio tour allowing visitors to learn about the facility while tailoring to their own tastes.  The audio tour’s first ten stops give the background about the facility and take approximately 35 minutes. From there, guests explore in the order they wish, at the speed they wish. Plan on spending an hour and a half to two hours total. You could stay longer and see some of the hands-on presentations given throughout the day.

If you can’t visit in person, you can take an online tour here, although I highly recommend a visit.  You need to feel the temperatures and the isolation to really appreciate what it must have been like to be imprisoned here.

Every Halloween, Eastern State Penitentiary hosts Terror Beyond The Walls, one of the country’s most highly rated haunted attractions.  I’m too chicken to experience that but I’m told it is fantastic!  Between the echoes of the concrete, the cold and the darkness, this place makes a fabulous Halloween attraction!

Details

Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary
Not much to distract a prisoner from penance!

The penitentiary is open 10 am to 5 pm seven days a week, year-round. I checked on Christmas Day and they were open! You can save $2 by purchasing online. Discounts are available in person for military, teachers, AAA, AARP and various groups. Otherwise, adults cost $16, $14 for seniors and $12 for children 7-12. Children under the age of seven should skip this sight.

A few things to note:

  • Some of the tour is outside, so dress accordingly!
  • Even in the inside areas, Eastern State is cold in the winter and hot in the summer. A recharge station in the middle is available to allow you to thaw out or refresh!
  • Leave backpacks in your vehicle or the staff will store them for you at the front.

Visit their website for more information: www.easternstate.org.

Philadelphia offers a lot for the tourist. You shouldn’t miss the Liberty Bell, Constitution Hall and Ben Franklin’s house. Iconic sites like the Museum of Art (with the Rocky steps) and the Philadelphia Zoo deserve a visit. But if you have extra time or want to see something different, consider visiting these more unusual tourist attractions.

Looking for something more cheerful? A few hours drive will take you to lavender fields in Pennsylvania!

If you enjoy craft breweries, consider visiting these nearby facilities:  Levante Brewing CompanyDew Point BrewingKennet Brewing and East Branch Brewing.

Happy travels!

Annick, The Common Traveler

Visitors to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania will want to check these two unusual places once they're done with the usual tourist sites.