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From the street, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia appeared to be a standard academic building, made of red brick with a matching fence at the sidewalk’s edge. Bright lights shone through the windows that surrounded the large, heavy wooden door.

Founded in 1787, one would expect the college to be full of towering shelves and an endless number of medical textbooks. But in actuality, the oldest professional medical organization in the US is home to the small but saturated Mütter Museum, which contains human skeletons, preserved foetuses, animal skulls, dried skin and organs.

The museum’s newest crown jewel – a section of Albert Einstein’s brain -- joined the museum’s collection in mid-November as a gift from Dr Lucy Rorke-Adams, a senior neuropathologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The brain is preserved in 46 slices, two of which will be loaned to London’s Wellcome Collection in the spring.

Einstein’s brain was originally divided into five sets of 46 slices in the pathology lab at Philadelphia General Hospital, but Rorke-Adams’ set is the only one whose whereabouts are known, said the college’s director of communications J Nathan Bazzel.

The Mutter Museum is just one of many cultural oddities that mingle among Philadelphia’s more mainstream museums, inviting visitors to voluntarily spend time in prison, pass by the gates of hell and walk in the footsteps of Edgar Allan Poe.

The squeamish need not proceed.

Eastern State Penitentiary
One of the world's earliest modern prisons, the Eastern State Penitentiary sits in the heart of Philadelphia, just a few blocks away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. No longer in operation, the former jail invites visitors to stroll through its creepy corridors, including the cell that Al Capone stayed in.

Artist Jordan Griska took the creepiness factor one step further, wrapping one of the cells and all of its contents in a sheet of steel for his Separate System exhibition, one of three exhibitions on display this winter. A worn-down path in the steel shows how the floor of the prison would wear from an inmate’s endless pacing. In comparison, the other jail cells seem rather cosy.

“The idea was to have the people that are entering the cell [feel what] someone in solitary confinement would feel after being segregated from the rest of the population,” Griska said in a statement.

The Gates of Hell
One of Auguste Rodin’s most famous sculptures -- a depiction of Dante’s Inferno -- is on display at the Musée Rodin in Paris. But a bronze copy of the 20ft-high sculpture fills the exterior wall of Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum.

Rodin worked on The Gates of Hell for nearly 40 years, until his death. The final -- though not completed -- product is made of plaster and contains 180 characters from The Inferno. Elements were added, removed and tweaked throughout the decades.

The museum has been undergoing renovations since 2008, and the interior will remain closed until late spring. However, the exterior gardens are open to the public.

Edgar Allan Poe House
Though Edgar Allan Poe spent only about seven years in Philadelphia, the city has embraced the Gothic horror author as one of its own. Poe rented several different homes in the city, and the only still-intact building has become a national historic site.

It was here that Poe likely wrote The Black Cat, and the home’s cellar is made to look similar to the one described in the dark short story. None of Poe’s belongings remain on site; instead the building is a walk-through museum in which guides recount the rise and fall of the author.

Outside, visitors pass beneath a raised statue of a raven, a tribute to one of Poe’s most famous poems.

 

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