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Joanna Ebenstein
Joanna Ebenstein

Coming Soon To Brooklyn: The Morbid Anatomy Museum

Joanna Ebenstein
Joanna Ebenstein

In order to see the appeal of the forthcoming Morbid Anatomy Museum, you have to understand the death-centric collection—think skeletons, taxidermy, medical oddities— as neither kitschy nor creepy.

"I like to think about how our attitudes about things have changed; and in particular our attitudes about death, because I think that is the most fertile thing to examine," says Joanna Ebenstein, the founder of the Morbid Anatomy Library, which is the basis of the museum. "The way we think about death now, these images seem completely inappropriate. It seems voyeuristic and wrong and horrible. But I would argue, in some ways, that they were dealing with grief in ways that we don’t really have a capability with any longer because we think it’s so inappropriate."

She is talking specifically about Stanley Burns' collection of eerie photographs depicting deceased Victorian-era children. The portraits were popular at a time when two of every five children died before the age of five and the inevitability of death was encountered more frequently and intimately.

"It really speaks to how much we’ve changed as people that this could become exotic and other. It never was before; there was never a period in history where death was so other than now." Confronting that chasm is, in part, the purpose of the museum.

Ebenstein, who taught herself to skin birds as a child, says she collected objects like those that will be found in the museum in a "low key" way for years. But once the library space opened in 2008, after a month spent visiting and photographing medical museums in Europe and the United States, she started actively looking for finds to fit the aesthetic.

And aesthetic is important. Many of the objects in the museum will be presented without explanation as Ebenstein wants them to elicit interpretation. "I’m not even sure I know what they all are," she says of the myriad of curiosities that are currently cluttering the walk-in closet-sized space that is the Morbid Anatomy Library. "If they’re interesting and I think they suit the space, I just take them home and sometimes I find out more about them and sometimes I don’t."

There's a method to this mystery. "I’m more inspired by 'cabinet of curiosity' type stuff, which is more associative and lets people make their own associations. If people ask then I’m certainly happy to share information. But there are so many other things that you can take from that that aren’t the facts so I don’t like to bias the viewer."

That doesn't mean there won't be plenty to learn from a visit to the museum. Morbid Anatomy has hosted lectures and various interactive classes—taxidermy is particularly popular—since 2009 and will continue to do in the new space.

The idea for a larger museum was born at one of these lectures, two Halloweens ago. Twins Tracy Martin and Tonya Hurley attended a talk Ebenstein was giving on Santa Muerte, Saint Death, and afterwards expressed their interest in seeing more.

"Tracy, who’s now our CEO, said, 'You know, there should be a gift shop cafe like this.' And I said, 'There should be. And it should happen now and it should happen in this neighborhood and we can make this great museum to go with it,'" Ebenstein says of that initial meeting. "So it was just this stupid conversation really and then something happened and it became more serious and I’m not exactly sure when it became more serious, actually."

The three-story space is set to open sometime in May. The basement will host events like make-your-own insect shadow box get-togethers and even a singles mixer for like-minded Brooklynites. The ground floor will have a gift shop and cafe and the top floor will feature an expanded version of the Morbid Anatomy Library along with an exhibition space.

The first show will feature the quirky work of Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter, who is famous for his anthropomorphic scenes such as The Kitten Wedding. A later show will make use of the postmortem photography in an exhibit about memorial art and a third will feature 17th century anatomist and museumologist Fredrik Ruysch's tableaus made using fetal skeletons and human body parts.

The range of topics that interest Ebenstein is visible in the more literal library section of the space. She rattles off the topics: history of medicine, death and art, death and culture, literature, medical museums, art and medicine, natural history, collectors and collecting, freaks and monsters, rational amusements, sexology, cultural theory, the uncanny, and religion.

It's fertile—if somewhat macabre—ground for investigation that has found more than just niche appeal. And if it seems strange to visit a museum with death as the through-line, remember that it is one of just two universal experiences. And a tax museum wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

All photos courtesy of Joanna Ebenstein.

Check out the Morbid Anatomy Museum Kickstarter here.

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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History
Alexander Hamilton’s Son Also Died in a Duel
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804, the scene must have been eerily familiar to the former Secretary of the Treasury. After all, his son died in a similar setting just three years earlier.

On November 20, 1801, 19-year-old Philip Hamilton and his friend Richard Price had a run-in with a young lawyer named George I. Eacker at Manhattan's Park Theatre. A supporter of Thomas Jefferson, Eacker had delivered a Fourth of July speech that harshly criticized the elder Hamilton, and his son was apparently determined to take revenge.

On that fateful day in November, according to biographer Ron Chernow, Price and the younger Hamilton "barged into a box where Eacker was enjoying the show ... [then] began taunting Eacker about his Fourth of July oration."

As onlookers started to stare, Eacker asked the two young men to go into the lobby, where he called the pair "damned rascals." Tempers rose, and although the trio went to a tavern in an attempt to settle their differences, they failed miserably. Later the same night, Eacker had a letter from Price challenging him to duel.

Customs of the time meant that Eacker had little choice but to accept or face social humiliation. He and Price met that Sunday in New Jersey, where the penalties for dueling were less severe than in New York. They exchanged four shots without injury—and considered the matter between them closed.

Philip Hamilton wasn't so lucky. Cooler heads tried to negotiate a truce with Eacker's second, but their efforts were also for naught. Once the duel had been scheduled for November 23 on a sandbar in today's Jersey City, the elder Hamilton advised his son to preserve his honor by wasting his first shot—by waiting until Eacker fired first or firing into the air, a move the French called the delope. The intent was to cut the duel short, and, if the other side fired to kill, plainly show they had blood on their hands.

Philip seemed to follow his father's advice. For about a minute after the duel officially began, neither man made a move. Then, Eacker raised his pistol, and Philip did too. Eacker fired, and Philip shot back, though it may have been an involuntary reaction to having been hit. The bullet tore through Philip's body and settled in his left arm. Despite being rushed to Manhattan, he died early the next morning.

On July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr also departed to New Jersey, this time Weehawken, to settle their infamous differences. This time, the elder Hamilton fired the first shot—and he aimed to miss. (According to his second, anyway.) Burr, on the other hand, seemed to have every intention of connecting with his target. He shot Hamilton in the stomach, and the bullet lodged in his spine.

Just like Philip, Hamilton died the next day.

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Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
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History
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.

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