Skeleton trio photographed by Nikki Johnson

Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum is like no other. Located in the heart of Center City, the archives and exhibition space host the 35,000-piece permanent collection of Philly’s College of Physicians, which is one of the oldest medical societies in the United States. Organs in formaldehyde, skin samples of old tattoos, and the remains of a woman who decomposed into soap are just a few of the wondrous anomalies adorning these halls.

The Mütter’s latest exhibition, Unseen, explores the deepest crevices of their backrooms through the lens of New York-based forensic photographer Nikki Johnson. Hyperallergic spoke with Johnson and Mütter Research Institute Director Anna N. Dhody on the labor that went into it. In the following interview, which was edited for length and clarity, we discuss their process of portraying the human body as a work of art.

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Hyperallergic: How did you first get involved with your line of work and the Mütter?

Anna Dhody: Technically I started working here in 2004, but for the first few years I was a contractor without proper employee status. Since 2007, I have been a full-time curator, working my way up to acting co-director and now director of the research institute. My training is in forensic and biological anthropology, so it’s been a bit of an atypical journey. 

Nikki Johnson at the Unseen exhibition

Nikki Johnson: I photograph autopsies all day, so this all kind of dovetails nicely. When I first moved to New York in 1998, I was doing more photographic documentary work and portraiture, a lot of underground events. I even met someone who had been self-amputating as a form of artistic expression. Everything has always seemed to come back to biology. When the Mütter put on my first exhibition in 2014, titled Death Under Glass, I started to develop a more clinical approach and felt at home. It all seems to come together here and putting an artistic spin on something medical feels particularly fulfilling since I don’t get to do that at my day job.

Hyperallergic: Tell me how this show came together.

NJ: It was an idea our colleague Dr. Marianne Hamel developed. She really enjoyed how microscopic imaging can have the same characteristics as abstract painting. I thought this could be done through photography. Not too long after Death Under Glass, we pitched the idea of exploring unseen items in the collection. Years later, the museum approved it, so I spent the last few years photographing hidden corners and items whenever I would visit Philly, blowing off dust and finding something unexpected. Poking around the corners there can feel very Nancy Drew.

AD: We like thinking about things from a different perspective, and our visitors love to see the “liminal” spaces, since so many museums only show a fraction of their collections. Some pieces are just not ready for primetime because of delicacy or damage, but we can show them in a different way that still remains in the best interest of the objects.

A sliced head at the Mütter Museum

H: I am definitely intrigued by something medically oriented looking like an abstract painting. With that in mind, how did you conceptualize the aesthetics of Unseen?

NJ: Unseen differs from Death Under Glass because it’s more traditional photography, creating and showcasing an image within the print itself. These photos can reinforce the idea that people are having a private moment with each piece. There are only a few shots where everything is visible in the wet room as they are. We wanted to have that artistic element of elevating each item but also giving viewers a “You Are There” idea. And in that way, so many small things stood out. Little Post-Its on doors, funny notes left behind that say “Remove by Penalty of Death” signed by just “The Intern.”

AD: You definitely get that small museum vibe here. As with many others, we have a limited budget and space but are always interested in showing our process. What I’m hoping to do next is have Nikki come in during our new renovation. We’re getting all new cabinets, a special exhaust, a new conservation room with a hood — I’m going to be able to do real science! Of course, I want Nikki to document this, maybe in not all of its glory but all of its chaos, because it’s authentic. I think museums are generally not willing enough to show themselves in a vulnerable position.

H: The building itself is so cool and beautiful from my memory — the old tiles and staircases, that medicinal plant garden outside. I think anyone could appreciate that.

AD: It is beautiful and old. We laid the cornerstone in 1908, and I will say our progress has been great, with a new roof and new electrical. We used to have just knobs and tubes; now we are getting better safety and storage. It shows what’s really possible when you invest in infrastructure. 

Anna Dhody photographed by Nikki Johnson

H: Anna, can you speak on the artistic and sculptural elements in the collection more generally, perhaps the wax models

AD: There are so many different ways to look at the wax models. The way I look at the collection overall is through its intent; it was originally intended as an educational collection. From 1863 to now, it has always been about educating — though to be sure, the “college” of physicians is not an educational institution, but rather a historic association of colleagues as you would see in Britain

Our demographic has changed since then, obviously, and we have changed how we present the collection, but everything has always been the same. The wax models came to be for a very specific reason, for medical education, because these models were sold to doctors and medical schools to show diseases and medical anomalies in a shelf-stable way. 

Back then, a specimen of smallpox would not have been able to survive, but a wax model did. And apparently, after 9/11 when people were concerned about biological warfare, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) realized they had very few color images of individuals with smallpox. The CDC wondered how anyone would actually be able to educate first responders or emergency room doctors about what smallpox would look like if it walked in. And, well, all they had was our wax models. They took detailed photographs and took lots of notes to help figure it out. And look at the timing now with monkeypox.

Wet room samples photographed by Nikki Johnson

H: Nikki, in photographic terms, what do your images say that the collection cannot?

NJ: Well, the first exhibition’s images were microscopic views of tattoo ink under the many epidermal layers, crack’s effects on the lungs, gunshot wounds, and bio lakes (which I think sounds like a vacation spot in hell). This new one is more of a deep dive, bringing people into the next layer underneath. It feels almost under the skin, literally, of the museum itself. If we can’t bring everyone down there, then we will bring the images up. 

AD: It is kind of gruesome, but if you have a tattoo and your skin comes off, it truly will be that much more vibrant underneath. The body has all these colorful secrets.

Visitors at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia (all images courtesy the museum)

H: For sure, I think about that with some paintings that look cellular or molecular, like Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” (1515).

I should also mention that my mother worked as a trauma nurse at Jefferson Hospital, right near the Mütter actually, and would tell me all these graphic horror stories when I was five or six years old. Even at that age I would think to myself, “Wow, I should not be hearing this,” but it really instilled a morbid curiosity in the body’s design that I still value.

AD: Oh, my son has heard some interesting stuff since day one, and I always wonder how much therapy we will need to book!

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.