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A Brainy Idea for a Museum

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Brains. Human brains.

Brains of long-dead mental patients rest in glass jars, preserved for more than 50 years, they sit on display at the Indiana Medical History Museum. Here the science of a former state mental institution intersects with the macabre art of medical equipment and tissue samples.

Visitors to the Indiana Medical History Museum can view a variety of vintage anatomy displays, including this antique model of a human brain. - INDIANA MEDICAL HISTORY MUSEUM
  • Indiana Medical History Museum
  • Visitors to the Indiana Medical History Museum can view a variety of vintage anatomy displays, including this antique model of a human brain.

And brains are only part of the peculiar objects on exhibit. What was considered state-of-the-art medical equipment in the early 20th century is now conserved in the same place where they were once used for practice.

The IMHM can be found in the Old Pathology Building at 3045 W. Vermont St., which served as a medical hub from 1896 until the mid-20th century, for anything from research to autopsies.

The building has now been an open time capsule for more than four decades, since the establishment of the museum in 1969.

A place often unknown to local residents, the IMHM has seen a rise in the number of visitors in the last few weeks, because six jars of human brains were stolen from its storage facility and then sold on eBay for $600, making it a national news story. The 21-year-old man who made the deal stole 60 jars of tissues samples from the museum.

"That was the last way I wanted to spur business," IMHM Executive Director Mary Ellen Hennessey Nottage said. "It was a horrendous event and we lost part of our history."

Now, a visitor intrigued by the theft can hop on a tour of the museum for less than 10 bucks and wonder at all the unfamiliar gadgets and gizmos it has to offer -- not unlike the Little Mermaid in her cavern of trinkets.

The gallery offers objects to view like old syringe kits and vintage sterilizers. There's also an old surgery tool with blades and gears like something found in the back of a deli for meat grinding.

Patrick O'Connor is an Indianapolis resident, and visiting the IMHM was on his bucket list of things to do around the city. He said he was not sure what to expect before joining a tour, but left surprised.

"I was much more uncomfortable than I thought I'd be," he said. "Parents and children who lived lives like us were brought in here and dissected. It's interesting, but sad."

Preserved brains, skeletons and other specimens once served as teaching tools for medical students. - INDIANA MEDICAL HISTORY MUSEUM

If anything, the museum presents the timeline of medical progression -- a chance to see how far technology has come in the last century -- and gives a silver lining for your next trip to the hospital. There's some comfort in knowing you won't be cut into with fat blades and prodded by bulky syringes.

"It wasn't a horrible place, but it was not a happy place, either," IMHM docent Jane DuMond said.

As O'Connor and the other visitors made their way into the autopsy room, their voices lowered to a hush and cameras were put down as they stood before the table where corpses were once laid.

"I'm a huge zombie-genre enthusiast, but that was a little too real for me," O'Connor said.

O'Connor and other visitors all murmured about the museum's distinctiveness. Instead of an emblematic museum, where the objects are brought in, IMHM gives its visitors the chance to see where all the medical work was done, with most of the tools and artifacts intact.

"Anyone that comes will enjoy the unique quality of the museum, a tour that's unlike any other," Nottage said. "They will learn of old science and medicine, and hear the story of a people largely neglected."

The tours start every hour, on the hour, Wednesday through Saturday for the month of February. While O'Connor may not be coming back right away, this is a place he would recommend to anyone looking for an extraordinary encounter.

"Though it does not come off as hidden gem, it absolutely is," O'Connor said. "This is one experience I think you can only find in Indy."

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