All posts by elbennett

Collecting health, sickness, and difference at medical museums

Medical museums catalogue the history of biomedicine (using empirical sciences to understand illness and disease) by displaying medical instruments, preserved specimens as examples of pathologies and anomalies, and photography. The museums I will be using as examples are the Mütter Museum and the Indiana Medical History Museum. The aims for these museums is to show how biomedicine, and the science upon which its predicated, follows a linear progression from ‘primitive’ practices to contemporary practices, which are understood as scientifically enlightened and valorized.

First, it is necessary to unpack what museums do and how they do it. Museums are ostensibly places for education and entertainment. At once, they teach and titillate. They impart ways of viewing and classifying the world onto the visitor, implicating them in narratives of history, evolution, and selfhood. Visitors to medical museum not only fulfill morbid curiosities, but place themselves within the narratives of medical progress. But at what cost? Whose bodies are used to tell which stories? Whose suffering is the currency of knowledge? Who has the authority to turn people who have these abnormalities into curiosities and objects of education and entertainment?

The Exterior of the Mütter Museum.
The Exterior of the Mütter Museum.

The Mütter Museum, founded and operated by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, is possibly the most famous medical museum in America. Among its most famous displayed artifacts are the ‘Soap Lady’, Albert Einstein’s brain, President Grover Cleveland’s jaw tumor, and a cast of Chang and Eng Bunker’s liver. The museum’s website states that the specimens and photographs are ‘beautifully preserved…in a 19th-century ‘cabinet museum’ setting’ ( By associating itself with a professional organization for medical doctors, the Mütter Museum places itself as a medical education institution that bases medical history on the presences and purging of bodily abnormalities and trauma.

Indiana Medical History Museum Interior
Indiana Medical History Museum Interior

The Indiana Medical History Museum is located in Indianapolis, Indiana. It occupies the now defunct Central State Hospital, an old psychiatric hospital. Visitors are taken through lecture halls, surgical theaters, and laboratories where specimens and tools are displayed. Among the exhibits advertised on the website (warning: graphic depictions of surgery) are a recreated family practitioner’s office from the early or mid 20th century, an exhibit about lobotomies, and the connection between mass incarcerations and mental illness.

By connecting these museums, the pathologies they exhibit, the narratives of progress and evolution, and the questions about embodied suffering and difference through illness and disease, we can understand how collecting the manifestations of biological and physical difference plays into the pathologizing of difference, be it mental or physical. This pathologizing process casts disability, culturally different categories of selfhood and embodiment, and the self into rigid categories of ‘normal’. We must interrogate the means by which our entertainment, education, and knowledge of mental and physical illness and differences stems from visiting and viewing these places. The objectification of illness and difference fits in with the history of objectifying and doing violence to bodies of color, including Indigenous bodies.

Works Cited


[The Indiana Medical History Museum]. (n.d.). Retrieved April 4, 2017, from

[Mütter Museum Exterior]. (n.d.). Retrieved April 4, 2017, from

Works Cited

Arnold, K., & Söderqvist, T. (2011). Medical Instruments in Museums: Immediate Impressions and Historical Meanings. Isis, 102(4), 718-729. doi:10.1086/663613

Indiana Medical History Museum. (n.d.). Exhibits. Retrieved from

Indiana Medical History Museum. (n.d.). LOBOTOMY: INTENTIONS, PROCEDURES, EFFECTS. Retrieved from

The Mutter Museum. (n.d.). About. Retrieved from

Wilson, E. K. (2015), The Collection and Exhibition of a Fetal and Child Skeletal Series. Mus Anthropol, 38: 15–27. doi:10.1111/muan.12070

Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) False Face Society Masks

Repatriating sacred items is an incredibly important practice. As with repatriating ancestral remains, returning sacred items helps indigenous peoples heal from generations of trauma and cultural suppression. These items are also central to debates about the exhibition of sacred items and about teaching non-Native peoples about Native cultures and lifeways. To illustrate the tensions between the items’ artistic and ethnographic value and their sacredness, I will be discussing Iroquois False Face Society masks.

The Iroqouis, who prefer to be known as the Haudenosaunee, are comprised of six nations: the Cayuga, the Onondaga, the Oneida, the Seneca, the Tuscarora, and the Mohawk. Their ancestral homelands included Northern and Western New York, parts of Ontario and Quebec, and a sphere of influence that extended to Virginia and Illinois (George-Kanentiio, n.d.). The Haudenosaunee have had many sacred items and objects of cultural patrimony taken and withheld from them, including False Face Society masks.

The Haudenosaunee flag. It is purple and white.
Flag of the Haudenosaunee.

The False Face Society is one of the Haudenosaunee’s medicine societies. The medicine societies cure various ailments with medical rituals. One becomes a member by being cured of an illness as the result of False Face Society rituals or by seeing the beings in a dream. The masks depict supernatural beings and confer healing abilities onto the wearers. To make a mask, one carves human-like, but distorted features into a living tree. Then one must separate the mask from the tree when it’s finished. The masks are regarded as living beings and are given tobacco, oils, and food as offerings. When not in use, the masks are cared for in a manner consistent with their status as vessels for sacred beings (Wallace, 1972, pp. 72-73).

In 1995, the Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee issued a statement forbidding the exhibition and circulation of images of these sacred masks (Chief Leon Shenandoah, 1995). The statement also denounced the sale or distribution of masks to non-Native peoples. However, some Haudenosaunee artists object to this condemnation, stating that their livelihoods depended on art sales and that the masks encourage people to learn about Haudenosaunee cultures. A website for one art  supply and variety store discusses the conflicting messages it’s received from Native peoples regarding the sale of False Face Society masks. Unfortunately, some sources point towards non-Native people carving masks like the False Face Society masks for commercial purposes (Chichester, Inc., n.d.).

Chief Jacob Thomas wrote to Chichester saying this:

‘…Particularly today as there are no jobs this may be the only source for the people to make a living is to sell their art…If masks are forbidden to be sold and it becomes too sacred then it will become a secret and no one will be able to carve a mask and know what it means…’ (Chichester, Inc, n.d.).

As of 2017, the Haudenosaunee have repatriated a number of medicinal masks from museums including the National Museum of the American Indian, the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, and the Cayuga Museum. The Rochester Museum and Science Center attempted to test medicinal masks in its collection for toxic agents and decontaminate them. Unfortunately, museums do not often treat the masks as sacred, and the retention of and desecration of these sacred objects contributes to long term trauma for the Haudenosaunee.

The National Museum of the American Indian, located in Washington, DC, and its gardens.
The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, DC. It held some of the False Face Society Masks until they were repatriated.

Further Reading

Haudenosaunee Statement on Repatriation

An art supply/variety store discusses the masks

False Face Society information

A Native American Studies blog discusses the False Face Society

Works Cited (Note: Some of these sources contain images of the masks. I did not place any images of the masks in my post because the Haudenosaunee discourage reproducing images of the masks.)

Chichester, Inc. (n.d.). Iroquois False Face Mask Controversy. Retrieved March 2, 2017, from

Chief Leon Shenandoah, T. (1995). Haudenosaunee Confederacy Announces Policy on False Face Masks. Retrieved March 2, 2-17, from

Department of the Interior: National Park Service Notice of Intent to Repatriate Cultural Items: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. (n.d.). National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Retrieved from

Department of the Interior Notice to Repatriate Cultural Items in the Possession of the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN. (1996, March 22). The National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Retrieved from

Gale Courey Toensing. (2012, June 16). Return of Sacred Items Heals Onondaga Nation. Indian Country Media Network. Retrieved from

Gale Courey Toensing. (2013, January 4). Cayuga Museum Receives Replica Wampum Belt for Returning Haudenosaunee Spiritual Objects. Indian Country Media Network. Retrieved from

George-Kanentiio, D. (n.d.). Ancestral Land Areas of the Six Nations Iroquois. Retrieved March 5, 2017, from

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy. (n.d.). Haundenosaunee Statement on Repatriation. Retrieved March 5, 2017, from

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy. (n.d.). Understanding Haudenosaunee Culture. Retrieved March 4, 2017, from

Ojibwa (Username). (2010, November 28). The Iroquois False Face Society [Blog]. Retrieved from

Rochester Museum and Science Center. (2009). Iroquois Medicine Face Testing and Decontamination Project – 2009. Retrieved March 5, 2017, from

The Struggles of the Iroquois League to Recover False Face Masks. (25 May 20122). [Blog]. Retrieved from

Wallace, A. F. (1972). The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. Vintage.


The National Museum of the American Indian. (n.d.). National Museum of the American Indian [National Museum of the American Indian]. Retrieved March 7, 2017, from

Onondaga Nation. (n.d.). Haudenosaunee Flag [Haudenosaunee Flag]. Retrieved March 7, 2017, from×251.jpg