Escapes: In Philadelphia, a fearsome museum trio

By Timothy R. Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 4:33 PM

I'm afraid of roaches. Psychologists call the fear katsaridaphobia, and I have a bad case of it. When I see a roach, I jump on a chair, hitch up my britches and wail like a siren.

So when my tour guide at Philadelphia's Insectarium plucked a Madagascar hissing cockroach from a fish tank, I reeled.

Ann Yamamoto, a grandmotherly retired librarian who works at the museum on Saturdays, asked whether I wanted to hold the roach. Um, no. She shrugged. This type of roach hisses when frightened, she explained. But this particular specimen was so used to being handled that it never did. It didn't look that ferocious, I thought, at least nothing like the lightning-fast mini-skateboards that terrorized my youth. I stroked the bug's back, took a deep breath and took it in my hand.

The Insectarium, a small two-story museum in northeast Philadelphia, is a local destination for birthday parties and field trips, a chance for visitors to confront their entomophobias. After you've nibbled cheddar-dusted worms and watched a cockroach race, your terrors just might vanish.

The museum's collection includes stick bugs, centipedes, eight kinds of roaches, several tarantulas, a black widow spider and a blue death feigning beetle. When startled, the beetle rolls on its back, curls up its legs and plays dead.

"As I understand, birds don't like eating things that are dead," Yamamoto said, the bug catatonic in her palm. "Then when it's safe, he'll flip himself over and go about his merry way." She put the beetle back in the tank, and we watched. After a minute, it writhed and turned back over onto its feet.

Next, Yamamoto showed me a giant vinegaroon, a nonpoisonous, palm-size scorpion with crablike pincers that produces a vinegar scent to ward off predators.

"I like him," she said, stroking his back. "He's really nice." Well, I guess any nonpoisonous scorpion is nice enough.

On the museum's first floor is a model kitchen strewn with decaying fruit bits. When the lights go off, the roaches come out and feast. They scatter when the lights come back on. Those were the roaches I didn't want to see. Before long, I, too, was scattering, off to Center City for one of Philadelphia's better-known attractions.

The popular Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia draws large crowds that come to see horns protruding from human foreheads, skulls cratered by syphilis and a 7-foot-6-inch human skeleton, all real-life medical oddities.

A display of infected eyeballs made me cringe, but I found the deformed fetuses the most disturbing. Standing before a wax figure of a baby born without a brain, I saw a discomfited father clutch his teenage daughter's shoulders, seemingly thankful for her robust health.

Most of the crowd gathered around a display case containing an eight-foot-long colon (the average colon is six feet) that had grown inside an average-size man in the late 1800s. According to the display's sign, a malformed nerve network around the colon rendered bowel movements nearly impossible, and his colon expanded with fecal matter. As a young man, he joined a freak show that nicknamed him "The Human Windbag"; such were the sensitivities of the time. When he died at the age of 29 in 1892, 40 pounds of fecal matter were jammed inside his colon.

One can take only so much of such sights. As I left the Mutter, it occurred to me that the motif of my trip was turning out to be fear. And my final destination clinched it.

In the Philadelphia suburb of Drexel Hill is Arlington Cemetery, where a funeral home that's a replica of Mount Vernon houses the Museum of Mourning Art.

The museum's exhibits center chiefly on the funereal practices of Colonial and antebellum America. Filled with symbolism, much of the art depicts the fears surrounding death: the fear of being forgotten, the anguish of souls condemned to eternal torment or exiled to limbo. Next to a lock of George Washington's hair was a striking ivory brooch depicting a young woman weeping over an urn, her head draped in a long black veil. A willow, its branches made of human hair, bowed above her.

Some of the displays, such as funeral hatchments, which bear a coat of arms and announced that a family was in mourning, served to encourage prayers for the deceased. The more prayers, it was thought, the better chance a soul had of ascending to heaven.

Back home a few days later, I was still feeling the effects of my museum jaunt. I picked up a copy of Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," a book I had never read because of the subject matter. It's the story, after all, of a man who wakes up one morning to discover that he has been transformed into - ack, a gigantic cockroach. I got through the first paragraph, and my nerves turned to jelly. Then I got through Page One, then Page Five.

I'm still reading.

Cornerstone Bed & Breakfast

3300 Baring St.


Close to the train station, with Philadelphia-themed rooms and a quaint family atmosphere. Rooms from $165

Tony's Deli

17 S. 21st St.


A block from the Mutter Museum. Philly cheesesteaks under $9.

Chris' Jazz Cafe

1421 Sansom St.


A sophisticated venue with jazz performances nightly, except Sundays. Entrees from $17.

Frusco's Steak Shop

7220 Frankford Ave.


A few bus stops from the Insectarium. Meals from $8.


8046 Frankford Ave.


An interactive museum of insects. $7.

Mutter Museum

19 S. 22nd St.


Deformities and other medical anomalies for all to see. $14.

Museum of Mourning Art

2900 State Rd., Drexel Hill


A museum that explores funeral traditions. Donations accepted.


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