Our oldest son is in town for a few days for the holiday, so we thought we’d try and do a few touristy things while he’s here.
For the past few years, we’ve driven into Philly to watch the Comcast Holiday Spectacular. The 15-minute show takes visitors on a festive, musical journey featuring classic favorites like Carol of the Bells, Jingle Bell Rock, and The Twelve Days of Christmas. The show also includes a snippet of The Nutcracker performed by the renowned Pennsylvania Ballet. The film features sing-alongs and a magical sleigh ride from the Philadelphia countryside to high above the city skyline, made all the more breathtaking by the massive Comcast Experience video wall.
And this year was no exception, but we wanted to pair it with something else.
My wife found out that our local library has free museum passes for many of the city’s museums, and she sent us all a list. Our two sons suggested either the Mütter Museum or the Eastern State Penitentiary.
Known as America’s finest museum of medical history, the Mütter Museum displays its beautifully preserved collections of anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments in a nineteenth-century “cabinet museum” setting. The goal of the Museum is to help visitors understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease, or as it notes on its website, to become disturbingly informed. But I didn’t think looking at a collection of skulls was in line with the spirit of Christmas.
So we decided to go to Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP).
ESPwas once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, but stands today in ruin, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers. Known for its grand architecture and strict discipline, this was the world’s first true “penitentiary,” a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of prisoners. Its vaulted, sky-lit cells once held many of America’s most notorious criminals, including bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al Capone.
The prison was operational from 1829 until 1971, and it was a little sobering looking at what prison life was like back in the early days. Prison officials at the time believed that solitary confinement was the best way to inspire penitence in the prisoners, and so that was the main approach used at ESP.
It was an informative tour, with many exhibits dedicated to the issue of prison reform. There was even a brief display dedicated to the First Step Act, a new law signed by President Trump this week. The law is a meaningful, if modest, step toward evidence-based policies on punishing crime. More ambitious steps should follow next year. The new law gives judges more discretion to skirt mandatory minimum sentences. It makes retroactive a previous reform that better aligned sentences for crack cocaine with those for powder cocaine. It expands inmates’ access to rehabilitation programs and slightly increases the credits they can earn to reduce their time in federal prison. I was quite impressed that the exhibits were so up-to-date.
The audio tour takes about 30 minutes and offers a nice overview of the history of the prison, and as noted above, there are many exhibits to visit in addition to the general tour.
As we were leaving, we agreed that while we were glad we had taken the tour, we unanimously decided that there was no need to make it a holiday tradition. I think we all knew this prior to the visit, so it was nice for such a hunch to be confirmed.
So who knows, perhaps starting next year the Mutter Museum will become part of our holiday tradition. I
But ‘ll go on the record right now saying that the odds of that happening are slim to none.
Maybe we should just stay home and watch Hallmark Christmas movies.