Mütter Museum's Exhibition 'Unhoused' Explores Health, Humanity, and Social Advocacy

Jessica Barber
mutter museum exhibit

Philadelphia's Mütter Museum, renowned for its extensive medical history collection and designation as a National Historic Landmark, is embarking on a groundbreaking exhibition titled "Unhoused: Personal Stories and Public Health." Departing from its traditional focus on death, the museum is addressing the critical issue of homelessness, aligning with the vision of its director, Kate Quinn, who advocates for a shift toward "health not death." While Philadelphia has made strides to find solutions for those undergoing housing insecurity, the rate of homelessness has climbed by 5.2% in 2023 compared to the previous year. The exhibit seeks to humanize the struggle unhoused people face and raise awareness towards an issue that often goes unnoticed. 

The collaborative exhibition, which began January 14th, is the result of combined efforts from Toronto-based photographer Leah den Bok, Dallas-based artist Willie Baronet, and public health experts Dr. René Najera and Dr. Rosie Frasso from the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the Mütter's parent organization. The exhibition aims to draw attention to the perilous health conditions faced by individuals without homes. 

"Unhoused" features approximately 40 poignant black-and-white photographs by den Bok, capturing the faces of men, women, and children experiencing homelessness in various countries, including the United States. Complementing these images are over 80 cardboard signs acquired by Baronet over the past 30 years from unhoused individuals, including one sign from Edward Dunn, a former Philadelphian who experienced homelessness in 2014 but has since turned his life around. 

Despite the museum's historical focus on medical specimens, the exhibit "Unhoused" is distinct from ongoing reviews of the museum's content. The exhibition represents a departure from tradition, embracing contemporary issues by “centering the voices of those experiencing homelessness in sharing their stories.” "Unhoused: Personal Stories and Public Health" is scheduled to run at the Mütter Museum until August 5, providing a unique perspective on homelessness and public health. 

The Mütter Museum itself, founded through the generous donation of American surgeon Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter in 1859, has grown into America's finest museum of medical history. Displaying beautifully preserved collections of anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments in a 19th-century "cabinet museum" setting, the museum plays a crucial role in helping the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body, as well as appreciating the history of diagnosing and treating diseases.

The Museum's Education program is aimed at middle and high school students of diverse backgrounds, partnering with schools to expose students to various careers in health care and biosciences, along with introducing them to the rich history and culture of medicine. With annual attendance exceeding 130,000 visitors, the Museum has gained international popularity and has been featured on numerous TV programs and specials, as well as in two best-selling books.

The current exhibition, "Unhoused," is a testament to the museum's commitment to addressing societal issues and aligns with the College of Physicians of Philadelphia's mission of advancing medicine and public health. Dr. Najera sees it as an opportunity for awareness, advocacy, and compassion, with panel discussions and programming throughout the exhibit's duration, potentially collaborating with organizations like Project HOME. The Mütter Museum continues to evolve, embracing contemporary challenges while staying true to its historical legacy. 

Photo credit: Mutter Museum 

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