I had a ball getting drunk at the American Museum of Natural History. But my most recent drunken outing was much less fun than that. I cannot stress enough that having a series of existential crises while drunk and alone in the Mütter Museum is a horrible idea. Just horrible.
Top Image: Gif by Jim Cooke, original photo: Evi Numen, 2011, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
The first draft of this was just me typing screams.
I don't blame the museum, obviously. I blame myself. There were signs this was going to be a disaster and I should have heeded these omens. Instead I moved forward with my foolhardy quest. I am, to be perfectly clear, a fucking moron.
The Drinks: A bunch of Pimm's Cups and then some other thing that I don't remember but was recommended by my bartender.
Last month, in my pursuit of alcoholic museum bliss, I ran afoul of New York's Puritanical Sunday drinking laws. That wasn't the case this time, since, three years ago, Pennsylvania passed a law that allows restaurants serving food to serve alcohol as early as 9 am. In case you're wondering: Yes, I do have the Wikipedia page on state alcohol laws bookmarked. And, yes, I am aware that this obsessive cataloguing of alcohol laws indicates that I have a problem.
No, what threw a wrench into my plans was that I overestimated the pull of the City of Brotherly Love on my companions. My friends and I were in town for a wedding, and while I had booked myself a later train in order to leave time to see the city, I was the only one who had done that. And I was the only one who had actually been to Philadelphia before. Congrats, Philly, no one with a real job (my party included exclusively lawyers, PhDs, and MBAs. I am the least impressive member of my high school class) wants to visit you.
Photo Credit: "Philadelphia Skyline" By Bob Snyder/flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Unfortunately, I had already pitched a drunk Mütter Museum review, so I had to soldier on alone. And this was the big mistake.
First, I had to find a way to get drunk. I literally just picked the first likely looking bar I found on my walk from my hotel to the Mütter. It was a Sunday, so I got to discover why the alcohol laws of Pennsylvania had so recently changed: because it keeps the hoards of Eagles fans that roam the streets in packs from tearing the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence down. The number of Eagles jerseys I saw on my way to the museum should have been like Furies to me: signs of ill-fortune.
The bar I picked was one with a giant olive on its edifice. I figured that made it likely that they would supply me booze and ask no questions. Not that they needed to, since I opened with: "I know this sounds bad, but I need to get drunk fairly rapidly and then leave for a museum."
It's at this point that I have to give a giant shout out to Joey, the shining light in this disaster of a trip. He was an excellent bartender, who assured me that this "didn't sound bad at all" and recommended something. He maintained the fiction that I wasn't a crazy out-of-towner trying to stave off the DTs, even when I finished his recommendation and informed him, again, that "this sounds bad" but his drink wasn't getting me drunk fast enough.
Joey was everything a bartender should be, and he made what I was convinced was going to be a grim death march to drunkenness a joy. We had a grand old time. As far as I remember.
Finally inebriated, I marshaled all the skills of "pretending to be sober" I learned in college, and walked the remaining few blocks to the Mütter Museum.
Gif by Jim Cooke, original photo: George Widman, 2009, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
The Museum: The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Here's the bottom line: Alcohol is a depressant. And one of the things it depresses is the part of your brain that smothers disturbing and existential thoughts in the cradle, before they can grow up into disruptive teens that throw "some day you will die alone and in pain" parties in your head.
So, if you are at all inclined toward the maudlin when drunk, the Mütter Museum is the wrong place to go. It is especially the wrong place to go if this is your inclination and you're alone with no one to talk you out of contemplating your mortality while standing in front of a nine-foot colon.
I started with the Death Under Glass exhibit. I am really glad that my trip happened before the joys of ebola panic erupted. As it was, the influence of alcohol and the flu I was still getting over made all of these actually really lovely prints of microscopic art hover and wiggle in front of my face. But not in a pleasant, "the edges of the world have gone soft" kind of way. More in the terrifying, Dumbo-style pink elephants on parade way. The prints that where of diseases? I was pretty sure I was going to get infected by looking at them.
Next, I perused Grimm's Anatomy, which provided a respite from thoughts of death and disease. It uses fairy tales as a framing device for various body specimens and frightening instruments. This was also the moment where a single lock of hair derailed my entire cognitive process while I deconstructed Rapunzel. Drunk me, it turns out, is not a fan. Here are the frantic, angry thoughts a lock of hair inspired:
Man, fuck the father in this story. I don't even understand the logic of this. Why bother trying to get your wife whatever she wants when she's pregnant, if you're just going to bargain away the kid? What's the fucking point? I thought the whole thing was that they really wanted a kid. And I can't remember, did he ever even give the mother a say in this before making the deal? Way to take her fucking agency, asshat. Fucking patriarchy.
Thankfully, this was all in my head and not blurted out to the person next to me.
What followed, as I walked through the main gallery, was a series of small nervous breakdowns inspired by the specimens on display:
- An unusual awareness of my own skull as thing inside my head as I looked at the Mütter's famed Hyrtl Skull Collection
- The panicked feeling that my bones would never stop growing and they'd kill me, brought on by the skeleton of Harry Raymond Eastlack, a man who had FOP, a disease that causes excessive bone growth and the ossification of other tissues
- The wonder about what brains are and how they work and maybe all of ours are irrevocably broken and Einstein's wasn't, that's why his is on display and we've wasted all our potential
- A brief foray into hysterical pregnancy while wondering what it would be like to be the mother of any of the many fetal specimens on display
- The realization that, if there was a sudden Earthquake, I would be crushed alive by the remains of other human beings. Which would be ironic, but I would also go out screaming.
Photo Credit: By John Donges/flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The Soap Lady's expression was mirrored in my face the whole time
Finally, I did something drunk I never would have done sober: I ventured into " Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death, and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia." I knew better. Even when I can control the direction of my thoughts, old timey medicine makes my stomach sick and my mind to try to crawl out of my skull to avoid the information being presented. I blame seeing Gone With the Wind and Glory too young (thanks, third grade teachers!) and the resulting nightmares of unanesthetized amputations.
Did you know the Mütter has an interactive experience that let's you see what it would be like to have an arm amputated? I DIDN'T BUT I DO NOW!
HAHAHAHAHAHA! This was a huge mistake.
It's very well done, is what I'm saying, and I fled before it finished.
Conclusion: If drinking makes it hard for you to distinguish reality from your own disturbing thoughts, the Mütter Museum is not a good drunk museum. I really can't emphasize enough how big a mistake going alone in that state was. Of course, if you're one of the people who complained that me being drunk at museums is disruptive, I can say: kudos. Locked as I was in my own head, silently freaking out, the only disruption caused this time was to my own mental health.
On the other hand, I fully recognize that other people are made of sterner stuff than I am and might enjoy that kind of profoundly unsettling experience. If so, definitely give it a go. Go this weekend, full of Halloween spirit.
And, just generally, go. The Mütter Museum is great. It's beautiful and amazingly well set-up. I, however, will stick to being stone cold sober.