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Dr. Mira Irons, the CEO and president of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which runs the popular Mütter Museum, is resigning.
She had been in the job for a little more than two years. Her predecessor had been in the job for more than a decade. Irons’ brief tenure was marked by turmoil; a mass exodus of staff, and major changes in terms of the museum’s online exhibits. The latter appears to have been prompted by questions about the human specimens in the museum’s collection that put the Mütter in the national spotlight.
In 2021, Irons, a geneticist and pediatrician, became the new CEO. One of her notable actions was to hire a new executive director, Kate Quinn, last year. Current and former staff say Quinn caused chaos.
As one example, they point to how the two handled the ethical problem of human remains in the collection, some of which came to the museum without people’s consent. The staff had been working on addressing this issue. They were planning an audit of the museum’s collection and a survey of people outside the museum before the new leadership got there.
Earlier this year, The Philadelphia Inquirer and ProPublica reported that museums around the country, including the Mütter Museum, still have Native American remains in their collections that they have yet to return.
Shortly after that, Quinn and Irons ordered staff to immediately take down all online exhibits and videos, including videos where living donors gave explicit consent for parts of their bodies to be on display for education. Staff say this happened without any chance for discussion — and caused a huge public backlash and disrupted existing programs.
The museum recently announced an outreach program to get more feedback, including a town hall discussion in mid-October.
Some of the videos have since been restored, but one current staffer, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said Quinn and Irons outsourced all the decisions to unknown external experts. The museum’s website says there will soon be reports on feedback to the videos and the human remains, but the staffer says no one knows who put together those reports.
The museum’s public relations consultant said in an email statement that Irons was “the force” bringing together “a panel of national experts whose members provided critical thinking and recommendations.”
The staffer adds that the backlash includes campaigns from an online group called Protect the Mütter. They say staff members agree with some of what the group calls for, but point out some people have also made angry phone calls to the museum, not understanding that front-line staff members are the ones fielding those calls, not Quinn or Irons.
They cite this debacle as an example of how Quinn and Irons do not care about what the staff thinks and has led to more than 10 people leaving in the past year, which is highly unusual for this group of tight-knit employees.
When WHYY News reached out to the museum earlier this year, their public relations consultant said that Irons and the board thought the staff turnover was nothing out of the ordinary.
The staffer we spoke with disagrees.
“I’m happy to see Dr. Irons go, because she was a terrible leader and had no sense of how to lead the organization, how to make people feel appreciated,” they said. “When you tell people to their face that you don’t appreciate their work, it doesn’t matter if you buy donuts on staff appreciation day.”
“There’s been major long-lasting damage to the organization,” they added. “We lost people who had … over a decade of institutional knowledge.”
The college had also hired an outside human resources firm to investigate complaints about Quinn’s leadership, as reported in Philadelphia Magazine. The PR consultant said that is not relevant to Iron’s resignation.
The organization will have an interim leadership team, while the board looks for a permanent successor.