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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7 Weird Graveyard Inventions
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If necessity is the mother of invention, death is its eccentric aunt. For centuries, humankind has been preoccupied with what happens to our bodies after we die. The result has been a grim procession of inventions intended to make our graves safer, sturdier, and in some cases, easier to flee. Some of these grave innovations are practical, but others border on the bizarre and downright creepy. Here are seven of the strangest.

1. THE SAFETY COFFIN

Leave it to the Victorians to fear being buried alive more than death itself. In the late 19th century, books and newspapers were full of stories of terrifying premature internments, although it's not clear how many actually occurred. The solution to the possibly-made-up problem was the safety coffin, or coffin alarm. These devices—of which there were several—most often employed a bell or other noise-making apparatus that could be manipulated by a person trapped inside a buried coffin to alert those aboveground. Many also included a hatch that would let fresh air into the coffin, allowing the prematurely buried victim to breathe until rescue came. One of the more famous of these devices was created by the Russian Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, and included a spring-loaded compartment atop the grave that would pop open like a jack-in-the box if there were any bodily movement below.

2. THE ESCAPE COFFIN

A more elaborate cousin of the safety coffin, escape coffins were built for those prematurely declared dead who didn’t have the patience to wait for someone else to come to the rescue. One such coffin, patented in 1843 and intended for use in vaults, had a spring-loaded lid that could be opened with the merest movement of a head or hand. Another more extreme example was the burial vault retired firefighter Thomas Pursell designed for himself and his family at a cemetery in Westport, Pennsylvania. The ventilated vault could be opened from the inside by a patented wheel lock. Pursell was indeed buried there in 1937, but so far he has not emerged.

3. THE WAITING MORTUARY

The waiting mortuary, a slightly more practical approach to avoiding premature burial, was most popular in Germany in the 19th century. Corpses were laid out inside these stately halls and monitored day and night for signs of revival or, more often than not, decomposition. Sometimes, strings attached to bells would be tied around fingers and toes—a precursor to the coffin alarm. When Mark Twain visited one in Munich in 1880, he wrote:

"There were 36 corpses of adults in sight, stretched on their backs on slightly slanted boards, in three long rows—all of them with wax-white, rigid faces, and all of them wrapped in white shrouds. Along the sides of the room were deep alcoves, like bay windows, and in each of these lay several marble-visaged babes, utterly hidden and buried under banks of fresh flowers ... Around a finger of each of these fifty still forms, both great and small, was a ring, and from the ring a wire led to the ceiling, and thence to a bell in a watch-room yonder, where, day and night, a watchman always sits alert and ready to spring to the aid of any of that pallid company who, waked out of death, shall make a movement."

4. CAST-IRON COFFINS

Inventor Almond D. Fisk was less concerned with premature burial than he was with delayed burial, such as when someone died overseas and transporting the body home would take weeks. In 1848, he patented his cast-iron coffin, which could preserve bodies for extended periods of time. Similar in shape to an Egyptian sarcophagus, these ornate coffins also included hinged faceplates, which could be opened to reveal the face of the deceased through a pane of glass.

5. REUSABLE COFFINS

Around 1784, Austria’s Emperor Joseph II grew so concerned about Vienna’s extravagant funerals (not to mention dwindling wood supplies and cemetery space) that he instituted the use of a reusable coffin. The wooden coffin contained a trap door in the bottom through which corpses, wrapped in sacks, would be discreetly dropped into their graves. The coffin could then be reused for other funerals, which would save wood and hasten decomposition of Vienna’s dead. The Viennese, however, were outraged at such an invention, and the drop-bottom coffin order was rescinded, meaning that reusable coffins never actually became part of Viennese funeral customs.

6. MORTSAFES

A mortsafe on a mossy grave at St Mary's Churchard, Holystone, England
A mortsafe at St Mary's Churchard, Holystone, England

In the 19th century, grave robbers known as "resurrection men" prowled UK and American cemeteries looking for fresh corpses to sell to medical schools. The problem was especially grave, pun intended, in Scotland. Thus came the mortsafe, a heavy wrought-iron cage or stone placed over gravesites to prevent the theft of corpses. It would be placed over the grave for a few weeks until the robbers lost interest, and then sometimes moved to a new grave. Although the practice of grave robbing diminished in the UK after the Anatomy Act of 1832, which gave medical schools a legal way to obtain cadavers for study, mortsafes would survive a few more decades. They can sometimes still be seen on older burials, and are occasionally misinterpreted as cages meant to keep vampires from rising from their graves.

7. COFFIN TORPEDOS

When incidents of corpse stealing increased after the U.S. Civil War, trigger-happy Americans had a more explosive way of theft-proofing their graves—the coffin torpedo. Contrary to what its name implies, a coffin torpedo was either a greatly modified firearm that shot lead balls when triggered by the opening of the coffin lid or a landmine-like device that sat atop the coffin and would detonate if the grave was disturbed.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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An Ancient Sarcophagus Was Found in Egypt—And It's Never Been Opened
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In what could be the plot of the next summer blockbuster, a sealed sarcophagus has been found 16 feet underground in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Science Alert reports. It’s still unknown who or what might be lying inside the nondescript black granite casket, but what’s clear is that it hasn’t been opened since it was closed more than 2000 years ago.

Ayman Ashmawy, head of the government’s Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Sector, observed “a layer of mortar between the lid and the body of the sarcophagus,” indicating it hadn't been opened, according to a Ministry of Antiquities Facebook post. Considering that many ancient tombs in Egypt have been looted over the years, an untouched sarcophagus is quite a rare find.

The sarcophagus was discovered when a site in the Sidi Gaber district, dating back to the Ptolemaic Dynasty (305-30 BCE), was inspected before construction of a building began. The casket is 104.3 inches long and 65 inches wide, making it the largest of its kind ever discovered in Alexandria. In addition, an alabaster statue of a man’s head was found in the same tomb, and some have speculated that it might depict whoever is sealed inside the sarcophagus. Live Science suggested that archaeologists may opt to inspect its contents using X-rays or computed tomography scans to prevent damage to the artifact.

Although it remains a mystery for now, Twitter has a few theories about who might be lying inside:

[h/t Science Alert]

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