Spit Spreads Death at the Mütter Museum: Parading Their Point

By Joseph Myers

Photos courtesy of the Mutter Museum

Anti-spitting sign posted on top of Fourth Liberty Loan sign

This Saturday, September 28th, Marconi Plaza will serve as the starting point for an interactive performance art celebration centering on last century’s flu pandemic and today’s public health workforce. 

Throughout his 28-year affiliation with UK’s Blast Theory, co-founder Matt Adams has immersed himself in creating interactive media in groundbreaking new forms of performance and interactive art putting audiences in the center of the action. Come Saturday, the proud professional will again endow a crowd with a direct connection to the group’s output, as he, his peers, and perhaps 500 participants will gather at Marconi Plaza, 2700 S. Broad St., for a parade to honor the local victims of the 1918-1919 global influenza. This event serves as the kickoff celebration for a Center City-situated exhibition on the affliction and contemporary medical matters.

To ward off any perception the 6-10 p.m. event is striving to create a funereal atmosphere, the Blast Theory crew is teaming with Academy Award-nominated composer David Lang and The Crossing—a Philadelphia-bred Grammy Award-triumphant choir—to present a world-premiere choral music piece the parade-goers’ cellphones will play. From the overall sojourn, Blast Theory will craft a film that the College of Physicians of Philadelphia will use as its Mütter Museum exhibition dubbed Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic in Philadelphia. 

“We are always excited to engage the public,” Adams said of the value his United Kingdom-based entity places on exchanges of energy. “Therefore, we’re quite eager to bring this endeavor to South Philadelphia.”

The labor of love will find him and his cohorts marking the 101st anniversary of the Liberty Loan Parade, an excursion that, though intended to be a national wartime fundraising effort as The Great War entered its final days, became a death sentence for 20,000 residents within six months of the would-be display of revelry because of the spreading of the malady among the onlookers. Lamenting that no memorial exists for the fallen, Blast Theory, through The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, will commemorate them all but especially those who perished on October 12, 2018, the pandemic’s biggest assault on mortality, with 751 deaths. To do that, it is enlisting the aforementioned total to trek to City Hall, with a joining point at Broad and Morris streets, to march with the death certificates of the deceased, lift cards with their names and situation themselves inside the moving walls of two 20-foot-long floats that will pass them.

“Most times, I’d say, parades are about spectating,” Adams, whose route will mimic the 1918 promenade’s path, stated. “However, this one will be about being involved and appreciating our predecessors on earth and those who share the space with us now. We intend, then, to make this as visually striking as possible.

“It’s an utter shame this disease claimed so many lives a century ago,” Adams lamented. “We know their existence should not be a footnote, and so by having victims’ relatives, as well as health workers and museum visitors, join us for our journey, we’re saying not only that we remember them but also that there are people who are working hard so today’s health issues, whatever they may be depending on a given location, are never going to go unaddressed.”

As the parade passes through South Philly, Adams, who noted our various neighborhoods resonate with him as expanses bursting with pride, said the block of time will help generations to see that similarities matter far more than differences and that everyone who joins the parade through https://www.spitspreadsdeath.com/ or who simply observes it will leave having found a unique way to assist the College’s mission to show an individual’s and a community’s health are forever linked. Because of his confidence in that, Nancy Hill, the College’s special projects manager, is hoping the parade inspires many visits to the exhibition.


“I hope that Spit Spreads Death shows Philadelphians—and our wider audience—that the history of public health and the history of medicine isn’t just about doctors and researchers understanding viruses and formulating vaccines,” Hill explained of the exhibition that opens October 17. “It’s about the social impact and cost of pandemics. I hope they recognize the experiences—and oftentimes losses—of their 1918 counterparts matter to the historical record, and spurred the innovations that help keep us safe today.

“Lastly,” she continued, “I hope they see their own role not just in the history of public health but the future. We want people to leave the exhibit thinking, ‘What would I do?’ and ‘What would we do?’ in the case of another public health crisis. We all have a social obligation to consider how we influence and impact the health of our communities and how we can support it.” 

“Taken together, the parade and the exhibition are intended to be educational spaces,” Adams surmised. “They set the stage for deep inspections of the 1918 tragedy and make apparent that in today’s world, though some things might aim to render us weak, we’re actually very strong.” 

If you’re interested in walking in the parade and honoring someone who died in 1918, you can sign up here.

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