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.