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Drexel Course Lends a Hand to the Mütter Museum

May 24, 2022

Students seated at a table during a class visit to the Mütter Museum that employed historic artifacts and discussions. Photo courtesy Jacqui Bowman.
A class visit to the Mütter Museum employed historic artifacts and discussions. Photo courtesy Jacqui Bowman.

“As someone who has been considering a career in public history and the museum field, I was only aware of ethical discourses in the museum world on a surface level,” said Karen Li, BA history ’22. “This course provided me with the opportunity to learn how to engage in reflections and conversations about the ethical considerations of museums, public history and justice in regard to the autonomy of human bodies and human remains.”

The Drexel University course? It was a special topics class, “Philadelphia’s Black Doctors,” Li took last term, completing a group project related to what she described as “the ethics of marginalizing language used in medical archives.”

Taught by College of Nursing & Health Professions Associate Teaching Professor Sharrona Pearl, PhD, the interdisciplinary course helped students dip their toes into real-world applications of medical ethics and museums in the 21st century. In addition to course readings, response papers and class discussions, students also worked hand in hand with staff from the Mütter Museum, a notable Philadelphia institution educating visitors about the history and culture of medicine through anatomical and medical artifacts. On-site visits explored how to continue the museum’s public-facing displays and offerings, and also update internal procedures related to donor consent forms as well as archival texts and objects.

Masked students posing on a table with primary source documents at an on-site visit to the museum. Photo courtesy Jacqui Bowman.
Students pored over primary source documents at an on-site visit to the museum. Photo courtesy Jacqui Bowman.

“The opportunity to have that self-reflective engagement with solid historical material and then collectively discuss it and critically engage in those questions was powerful,” said Pearl. “Grounding those theoretical discussions in practical engagement and work built from actual needs was just incredibly exciting.”

The timing of the course (minus a pivot to virtual classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic) coincided with the Mütter Museum’s future project showing the history of Philadelphia’s Black doctors and Black hospitals, as well as a recent grant related to the ethics of display. The museum’s staff and archives “really opened up to us,” Pearl said.

“Many of the documents in the Mütter Museum’s Historical Medical Library (HML) are decades- or centuries-old medical texts and contain outdated/ableist language. Some of this language is reflected in the subject headings researchers use to navigate the collection,” said Jamie Clifford, a graduating history and art-history dual-major. “Heidi Nance, the director of HML, introduced us to the debates surrounding language in archives — should we update subject headings to reflect the language we use today, or preserve historically accurate (though potentially harmful) language? We worked to create a pamphlet to distribute to researchers acknowledging the contents of the HML collection and introducing visitors to these ethical challenges.”

Students studying books at a table in the Mutter Museum.
Students reviewed examples of some of the marginalizing language used to describe patients, as stored in the museum. Photo courtesy Jacqui Bowman.

Primary source documents were also studied for Mobolawa Adio’s group project related to the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital, the first African American-run hospital in Philadelphia. “I think that it is important to understand the contributions that Black medical specialists have made in their own communities. It is also an important part of Philadelphia's history, and it is sad that it is not discussed as much as it should be,” said Adio, public health ’23.

Nalo Russell, BA global studies and Spanish minor ’24, said she “acquired important skills relating to curation, historical analysis, modern reparations and human anatomy,” by completing a living donor enhanced consent form for the donor’s biological material. “Far too often, body donations are orchestrated by museum personnel and liaisons; however, our form challenges this practice by providing donor inclusivity,” she added.

The idea to develop the course came to Pearl after she completed training to teach a community-based learning course through Drexel’s Lindy Center for Civic Engagement. She reached out to the Mütter Museum as a possible community partner. Drexel’s Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships supported the class.

An image Nalo Russell created for an Instagram post announcing the launch of the donor form created in one of the group projects. The image reads "The Legacy Project: providing integrity and autonomy for our donors. The Mutter Museum" on top of an image of the interior of the Mutter Museum and a cabinet of skulls.Photo credit: Nalo Russell.
An image Nalo Russell created for an Instagram post announcing the launch of the donor form created in one of the group projects. Photo credit: Nalo Russell.

“The Lenfest Center supports faculty who wish to partner with non-profit cultural organizations by providing funding for special topics classes. These classes allow students to apply what they are learning to challenges the non-profits identify,” said Lenfest Center Executive Director and Senior Vice Provost of University Collections and Exhibitions Rosalind Remer, PhD. “This class was a perfect case study of how this kind of partnership can enrich the students’ experience in their classes, feature faculty research expertise, and deepen relationships between Drexel and these organizations. I was so impressed and excited to see the amazing work the students did with the Mütter Museum.”

The course was cross-listed in the Department of History, the Minor in Africana Studies program and through the Center for Science, Technology and Society in the College of Arts and Sciences, and brought together students from different fields across the University.