The Morbidity Museum in American Horror Story: Freak Show was unspeakably horrific, but institutions displaying specimens with genetic abnormalities really do exist in real life.
The Mütter in Philadelphia, perhaps not coincidentally the same city that the fictional Morbidity Museum is situated in, is the Grandfather of all the American institutions displaying macabre reminders of human fragility, and it is thought to be the inspiration for the fiendish American Horror Story curiosity cabinet.
Thankfully, the history of the Mütter is not riddled with murder and exploitation and it was instead created as a place where medical students could learn to empathize with the human stories behind the specimens. J.Natan Bazzel, director of communications for the College of Physicians of Philadelphia explained:
"All of the specimens from the collection have a very human story to them,” Bazzel says. “That was really one of Dr. Mütter‘s primary goals [when he gifted his collection to the college]: It was to better enable medical students to develop in the realm of compassion."
Being a well respected scientific institution, The Mütter Museum would never obtain its specimens in the downright deplorable ways we saw in American Horror Story.
Buying and selling human remains is obviously incredibly taboo in this day and age and all of the specimens in The Mütter have been donated from various sources. Bazzel told interviewers from Philly Now that:
"One thing we do not — we do not — do is purchase specimens. We receive specimens from other institutions if they’re getting rid of them. For instance, we received approximately 670 brain slices and segments embedded in acrylic from St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York when they were shutting down. Other specimens we receive from private donations, such as doctors who may have various specimens from their teaching collections, and they’re retiring and decide to donate them to us. It’s very diverse.”
Along with it's various ill-fated babies with congenital defects, The Mütter is also the proud owner of slices of Einsteins brain, the tallest skeleton in North America and 'The Soap Lady,' whose corpse mysteriously turned into a soapy substance called adipocere, better known as grave wax.
Although the collection at The Mütter is undeniably morbid in content, the university behind the museum is keen for people to understand that it is a place of education that strives to celebrate the diversity of human existence. In the words of Bazzel:
"The human form is not one specific form and that’s one of the things we hope that people understand when they come to the Mütter. It attracts people for many different reasons, but it doesn’t matter why they come. What does matter is that they walk away with an understanding of compassion, and we hope that visitors walk away with a better understanding of what it means to be human.”