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Post Mortem

Tattoos, Diseases, and Skin Pickings: A Museum Explores the Importance of Skin

The exhibit includes wax models of grotesque skin diseases, strips of preserved tattooed skin, and an entire jar of skin pickings.

Simon Davis

Simon Davis

​ A woman with syphiloderma. All images courtesy of the Mütter Museum

Skin is perhaps the most versatile part of the human body: It regulates the body's temperature, it can signal internal disease, it can become artwork. At times, human skin has even been used to bind books and create drums (so useful!). Because skin is so cool, it's earned a new permanent exhibit at Philadelphia's Mütter Museum, which opened over the weekend.

The Mütter Museum is well-known for its collection of medical oddities: Among its more famous items are Grover Cleveland's jaw tumor, a slice of Albert Einstein's brain, and a 7'6" human skeleton, the tallest on display in North America.

"Our Finest Clothing: A Layered History of our Skin" lives up to the museum's provocative reputation. The exhibit features an array of tattooed human skin, wax models and illustrations of various skin diseases, and a large jar of of skin pickings donated by woman living with dermatillomania, a psychological condition involving obsessive skin picking. The goal of the exhibit, according to the museum's announcement, is "to explore the biology, pathology, and cultural aspects of skin from both a historical and contemporary angle."

I reached out to curator Anna Dhody to find out why she had chosen skin as the centerpiece of the exhibit.

VICE: What's the scope of how skin is talked about in this exhibit?
Anna Dhody: We talk about, for instance, just what is skin. We have a few fun skin facts. One of the ones I particularly like says, "In the time it takes you to read this panel, your body will have shed over 30,000 skin cells." It takes about a minute to read that, and you'll have shed 30,000 skin cells. An average human will shed about nine pounds of dead skin cells in a year. And it takes about a month for you to regrow. Your whole skin regenerates in that time.

We have skin and culture—body modification involving the skin, tattooing, piercing, scarification, things like that. Think about how many people in the world are tattooed or pierced. I think 85 percent or so of Americans have at least an ear piercing. These are all things that directly affect your skin, and I think we deal a lot with skin and culture—with these body modifications, we have some amazing tattooed skin on exhibit that I think people are really going to enjoy. There is a small section on dermatology, but in this particular exhibit, I wanted to get away from "ologizing" it too much.

A preserved tattoo in the collection

How did you get the preserved tattoos in the exhibit?
The tattoos came as part of a larger donation from a medical institution, and we were very, very happy to accept them. Unfortunately, when they came to us, they had been either found as a collection, or they had somehow been disassociated from their provenance, which means that what we know about those specimens is only what we can see. Looking at them, we've had people that are very knowledgeable in historical tattoos say that these are quite old—maybe over a hundred years old. We're in the process of hopefully getting a researcher who is going to come in early April and do a write up for us, so we can get more information about them.

You also have a jar of skin pickings on display. Tell me about that.
It's a little bit outside the norm of the traditional content of the skin exhibit. [We got an email] from a very nice young lady who informed me that her "roommate" moved out and managed to take everything except this jar of skin. And did I want it? And of course, this raised a little red flag, because I'm like, "Really? Your roommate, huh?" I was intrigued, and I didn't immediately respond. I did some research, and, ultimately, I said, "Yes, I'll take it." A couple weeks or days passed, and I got this package in the mail—two Trader Joe's organic strawberry preserve jars containing the skin with a wonderful note saying, "Yeah, you know how I said it was my roommate? Well, it's me."

The jar of skin pickings

Wow. Why was she picking her skin in the first place?
This is a woman, who has dermatillomania and is acutely aware, knows that she has it. According to her, she has the condition contained where she only picks the skin off of her feet. You'll notice that some of the pickings are darker in color than others, and that's during the winter when she was wearing black socks. [She wrote a] very detailed letter—very interesting.

These kinds of donations—tattooed skin, skin pickings—seem very personal. How did your colleagues react to these items?
I mean, I got a lot of flack from my co-workers who—believe it or not, even in this museum—were a little skeeved out by this jar of human skin. For me, what this enables me to do is something that is very hard for other medical museum curators to do, which is to talk about a mental condition while having a very didactic physical representation of it that the person can see. You can't bottle depression; you can't bottle schizophrenia and show it in a way that is really evocative. So by having this jar of skin and then talking about dermatillomania, I'm able to educate our visitors about this mental condition in a way that is very powerful.

A woman with zoster, a reactivation of the chicken pox

Besides mental disorders, the skin diseases are also a big part of this display, right?
Our director, Robert, had skin cancer, and his skin cancer slides are in the exhibit, along with his account of having skin cancer and what he went through to get rid of it. It's in a third person narrative, but it's a personalization of that. If you poll, most of the people coming into the museum are either going to have had it or know somebody close to them who had skin cancer. So, we do talk about that, and I think looking at his actual slides is really interesting when viewed in context with the panel. Otherwise, you're just looking at these slides, which might not be so interesting. But then you realize with this panel that, Hey! That's the director of the Mütter Museum's skin right there. I think that was really interesting.

What about more obsolete skin diseases—things like syphilis, smallpox, and other ailments we fortunately we don't see much of any more?
[A hundred years ago], there would be a lot of people walking around with syphilis. In terms of abnormal function, you would still see people walking around with a variety of different conditions—vitiligo, ichthyosis, pemphigus. We've got a great wax model of pemphigus [Note: Pemphigus is a rare skin disorder involving blistering skin around the mouth or genitals].

A person with dermatitis exfoliativa

Have you had any skin donations offers from living people? I mean, are people coming to you with their tattoos?
We have a lot of people approach us, but then they find out that the burden—both financially and logistically—is on them. I mean, obviously, people want to do a full body donation, but that's just not possible. We don't have the room! Then they say, "Well, you can just take this bit and piece of me," and we're like, "We do not have the proper medical or scientific facilities to make that kind of extraction." So we tell them that this is something that just has to be supported financially entirely on your part, and we're sorry we just don't have the ability to support that.

I do get things like, "I have had my husband's gall bladder." Those are primary donations that are a little bit easier to obtain and those I'll try to do. But, in terms of people willing things after they die, it's just a bit too much logistical rigmarole to go around to that. People tend to think they're a little bit more special than they really are. And that sounds like a horrible thing to say. I hate to be tell people that. We're like, "You know, thanks, but no thanks."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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