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The Mütter Museum is a Philadelphia Must-See.

The Mütter Museum is a Philadelphia Must-See.

If the question is “May I take photography inside of all your marvelous medical oddities, curiosities, and maladies?”, the answer is a definite no. But actually, my question is “Can I blog about Philadelphia’s infamous Mütter Museum?”, and I’m just going to plunge ahead, not waiting for an answer, and beg forgiveness later.

If you are a Philadelphia area resident and you have never ventured to 22nd Street between Market and Chestnut, to the College of Physicians’ amazing, disturbing, and eye-opening (and in some cases, oozing) Mütter Museum, you owe it to yourself to put it on your New Year’s Resolution list. A visit will cure you of thinking hypochondriacs are crazy, it will give you new respect for the medical pioneers who have helped us achieve the healthcare available to us in the 20th Century, and it will create empathy for some remarkable people who have had to endure some physical handicaps, indignities, and challenges that underscore the strength of the human spirit.

If you are from outside of Philadelphia, I have good news for you — the Mütter is now available to you every Monday via its very own YouTube channel with a video minute starring its current curator. I would like to salute the Museum’s marketing team for its social media inventiveness (you can also connect with the Mütter via Facebook and Twitter). They are leveraging digital and social to connect in an educational and entertaining way with a wide audience of museum members, followers, and potential new converts. Marketing creativity has long been a strength of the Mütter, however. A good many years ago, a former curator was a semi-regular guest on David Letterman’s show. Earlier this fall, the Mütter premiered an art film by identical twins, the Quay Brothers, who were likely drawn to the collection by the saga of conjoined twins Yang and Eng. The museum really understands that its halls are filled with exhibits that are offbeat at best, off-putting at worst, and that it needs to play to its strengths, but with 365-days-a-year unconventional outreach.

As great as the new YouTube channel is (deep, too, with around 100 videos), you need to visit in person to get the full Mütter experience. The Soap Lady needs to be seen in the flesh (or in all her saponified glory). There are several preserved ovarian cysts that are (I’m not exaggerating here) larger than our Butterball Thanksgiving turkey for 12. Then, there is the mega-colon (also preserved and on display) from a man whose bowels’ nerves were contributing to the worst constipation problem anyone could ever possibly conceive of (until you see it on display). Perhaps the most amazing thing I learned was that the Hahneman of yesteryear found nothing they could do, so they discharged the poor man (not the hospital’s finest hour).

The Mütter is a tourism treasure of the City of Brotherly Love and needs all the love it can get. Here is a holiday card in the form of a very entertaining Gamestop commercial from Christmas season 2010 that has nothing to do with the Mütter, but as you’ll see, everything to do with the Mütter:

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Penn State website is a good place for official announcements on the story.

Penn State website is a good place for official announcements on the story.

Somewhere a new PR text book is being written following early news of the worst collegiate sports, make that collegiate, scandal of all time. Who could have predicted that Penn State University and Joe Paterno could have gone from squeaky clean to skeevy in a matter of days. Heads have rolled, arrests have been made, investigations have been launched, and the rumor mill continues to churn. After what has already been divulged, pretty much nothing is out of the realm of possibility now.

Moment of unity at first PSU football game after the story broke.

Moment of unity at first PSU football game after the story broke.

Fewer and fewer people are leaping to the defense of Joe Paterno because of his apparent lack of action in this scandal, although one who is, NFL great Franco Harris, just lost his spokesperson gig with a western PA casino for his vocal support of JoePa.

Every day, another stunner. The Bob Costas interview with Jerry Sandusky left viewers feeling slimed. Friday, Michael Smerconish’s column in the Inquirer revealed that the university had six months to prepare for this coming storm . It continues to be hard to imagine how you could possibley put any kind of positive spin on charges of pedophilia and cover-ups. As evidenced already, words like “horseplay” don’t cut it.

Only two things have given me pause about  completely rushing to judgment about this debacle. One is the way certain high profile cases, from the Duke lacrosse scandal, to the Amirault day care kangaroo court saga, have turned out far differently than initially reported.

PSU students have created a support wall on campus.

PSU students have created a support wall on campus.

The other is the brilliant Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, in which an incident involving rape and murder is told from four different perspectives, the attacker, the two victims, and a witness. The truth in this case (and every case), when told from different perspectives, can change like shifting sands.

This 1950 world cinema classic deserves regular screenings on the State College campus in the months ahead. It is important to remember that not all that is being reported now is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We owe it to the real victims, the crumbling Second Mile foundation, and every PSU student, faculty member, administrator, alumni, and alumna affected by this outrage.

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This post-Halloween edition of NewtonIdeas is devoted to an undervalued, under-appreciated way for communities (cities and small towns) to boost their tourism revenue, especially during the month of October — ghost tours. The best of these walking/talking/yarn-spinning excursions are wonderful mixes of architectural visits, local history lessons, and occult experiences. Because they are walking tours, the group gets to soak in local culture and atmosphere, often winding past main street restaurants and retailers. They attract all ages, and often, entire families. They spark the interest of participants to learn more about the people and places they hear about on the tour.

Our reason for attending Ghost Tours of Phoenixville was to find something different for a birthday party outing for a small group of middle schoolers. We were rewarded with a fun night out, listening to some intriguing, not-too-scary stories about haunted goings-on around an old steel mill town that is having a gentrified resurgence otherwise through fine dining, arts, music, and a very walkable downtown. And we all had a few genuinely spooky moments. Not the same frights as you’d get from a haunted house full of movie monsters. But the tour yielded its share of ghostly accounts.

Of all places, the Phoenixville Library has made a list of most haunted sites. It even led the cable show “Scared” to devote an entire show to investigating paranormal weirdness in and around the stacks, the attic, the children’s library, and the front lawn of the library.

Local legends can be fun and take on a life of their own, especially through popular culture. Anyone who has ever read Greyfriars Bobby will appreciate this version of the shaggy dog story and how a local legend can pay big dividends for an entire community.

I like all that Phoenixville has to offer enough that I didn’t need another reason to return (the town also collaborates with the historical Colonial Theater to stage an annual “Blob Fest” every summer, since the famous scene from 50s Horror Classic, “The Blob”, where the crowd runs screaming from the theater, actually took place at the Colonial.

However, now, my curiosity about the spiritual energy at the Phoenxiville Library has been piqued. Here is a photo taken by iPhone, without flash, that captures the presence of orbs outside this reportedly haunted facility. Whether astral projections from a paranormal presence on the site or some other other-worldly phenomena, there is definitely something in the air in Phoenixville.

Orbs outside the haunted Phoenixville Library.

Orbs outside the haunted Phoenixville Library.

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The Mummers Parade, every New Year's Day, is Philadelphia's Mardi Gras.

The Mummers Parade, every New Year's Day, is Philadelphia's Mardi Gras.

Every New Year, the Mummers return to amaze, entertain, and ultimately mystify. They are the greatest show on earth that most outside of Philadelphia (and sadly many in the Delaware Valley) seem to pay little attention to.  The parade is thousands of Elton Johns and Lady Gagas in full feathery regalia. An American Idol competition for marching bands and street choreographers. A city-wide spectacle unfolding block by block up Broad Street.

So why aren’t the Mummers front and center in selling Philadelphia tourism? It’s complicated. The City seems to be annually challenged to make the Mummers Parade a profitable enterprise. Because it falls on the New Year’s holiday, the cost of services escalate (and that’s even when the weather is cooperative). Ironically, at a time when the City is packed with people, many businesses prefer to stay closed for the holiday to making money when the opportunity presents itself.

Separated from the parade, the Mummers seem to lose a lot. A single string band is festive, and “O, Dem Golden Slippers” is lively, but a small representation merely hints at the pageantry and year-long sweat and toil by volunteers and performers to pull off each annual parade.

Not surprisingly, the Mummers haven’t translated well to the web. Lots of sites (like this, this, and this), some selling and supporting the uniquely Philadelphian Mummers enterprise, but none capturing the Mummers experience. A somewhat better repository is YouTube with clips of individual club performances. However, that underscores how hard it is to distill the essence of Mummery.

For years, the local TV stations have taken turns providing Mummers parade coverage and playing hot potato. It is always a LONG day of endless commentary and a thankless job for anchors assigned. Only CNN with its 24/7 filling airtime model might be up to the challenge.

Seeing the parade up close and personal, as it unfolds, is the only way to take in all things Mummers. Once, a friend invited my wife and I to watch the parade from the eagle eye view of the Union League. We were warm, had great food and drink, but it was antiseptic. The Mummers parades I remember best were all ground level, strolling along Broad and around City Hall, enjoying both the string bands and the crowds cheering them on. It wasn’t always family friendly thanks to public drunkenness, but it is hard to be judgemental when carrying your own hip flask to help ward off the all-day cold.

Maybe Philadelphia is holiday’d out, with so much devoted to the July 4th Freedom Week celebrations.  Maybe the Mummers are too much of a peoples’ parade of neighborhood clubs and volunteers to be managed cohesively by city officials. Maybe the competition of Mardi Gras (New Orleans has its own holiday), the pageantry of Cirque du Soleil, Ringling Brothers, and Disney theme park parades, and ever-more-elaborate music videos make the Mummers pale to a jaded public.

However, more and more people are attracted to Philadelphia for New Year’s Eve celebrations at great restaurants, bars, and music clubs, with city-sponsored fireworks, and by attractive hotel packages. In 2012, according to recent reports, the city might even be host to the NHL’s national audience tv event, the outdoor Winter Classic. Capping it all off with a full day of Mummery would seem to make Philadelphia a destination city for the entire New Year’s Holiday. The Mummers are a live event and a street event — the city should start planning for 2012 and how best to integrate the parade into making Philadelphia  and the Mummers synonymous with New Year’s memories for visitors from near and far.

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Duck Tours

Duck Tours

Some times it is fun to learn what is going on at home when you’re on vacation. That was not the case last week, while in Boston with my family. We were grabbing lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant when my oldest son looked up at the TV and noticed a scene from Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing waterfront area featured on CNN. The story was about the sinking of a Ride the Ducks tourist amphibious vehicle following a collision with a barge. Ironically, at that moment, my wife was on her cell calling the Boston version of this attraction to get information on departures later that day.
Needless to say, this story resonated with my family the rest of the week. We had all taken the Philadelphia tour the other year and enjoyed it a lot. Even though, we were familiar with all the on land sites, it was fun to see them from a new perspective and the 20 minutes or so in the Delaware River was a view of our city we’d never seen before. Throw in the plastic “quackers” and the fun Philly music favorites played on the Ducks’ speakers and you had a winning outing for all ages. We were more than interested in repeating the experience in Boston.
For awhile the story seemed to get better. Initially, it sounded as if all the passengers were rescued and that those who were had not been seriously injured. Then, news came that two passengers were unaccounted for. As time wore on, hope began to fade and eventually the bodies of 16-year-old girl and a 20-year-old man from a Hungarian church group touring the states were recovered. A sad riverside memorial service on Saturday indicates that the thoughts and prayers of many in the city go out to the families of Dora Schwendtner and Szabolcs Prem.
Reading the detailed accounts in the Philadelphia Inquirer answered most of our questions as to how this tragedy could have happened. This tidal section of the Delaware River is a major shipping channel, and although the tourist boats stay close to shore, unforeseen circumstances such as this can bring them into harm’s way when motor trouble occurs. Making matters worse, the barge was being powered from the other side by a tugboat attached near the rear. There was evidently no visual recognition that the stranded duck tour vehicle was even in the barge’s path.
One surprising revelation came from Chris Edmonston, Director of Boating Safety at the Boat US Foundation. He noted that a Pennsylvania rule that requires children 12 and younger to wear life jackets applies only to recreational vessels. Commercial vessels must have enough life vests for everyone on board, but passengers are not required to wear them. This tragedy could spur a change in that regulation. From passenger accounts, it sounded as if things went from minor problem to full-blown chaos very quickly. Plus, if we should have learned one thing from the current BP rig disaster it’s that we must never forget Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” A corollary to that might be that “No matter how many contingencies we plan for, there will always be another one that we didn’t plan for.”

Duck Tours

Duck Tours

That might be why the very next day after Philadelphia’s tragedy, the streets of Boston were still active with so many of their own Ducks tours. The ones I saw were all filled with eager tourists. Either they hadn’t heard the sad news

Duck Tours

Duck Tours

from the Delaware River or they didn’t believe in lightning striking twice.
From a PR and marketing perspective, I guess this all makes sense. The Ride the Ducks tour company seemed to be taking appropriate steps. The President flew up from Atlanta to Philadelphia and made himself accessible to address questions promptly. Not sure that Boston’s duck tours are run by the same company, but regardless, all their livelihoods depend on making tourism fun. You just hope they will incorporate everything they learn from the Philadelphia tragedy into standard operating procedures going forward to also make tourism safe. Improvements that might prevent future tragedies are the least that should be done in memory of Dora and Szabolcs.

Historical Footnote: Peter Binzen writing for The Inquirer has an interesting bittersweet personal account about usage of the Ducks in WWII in Italy.

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