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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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Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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History
The Surprising Origin of the Word Morgue
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Today the word morgue conjures up images of an efficient, hygienic room overseen by professionals in lab coats and rubber gloves. Most of us are familiar with its inner workings only from cop shows and crime novels, never having had the desire—or need—to visit one in real life. However, our image of the modern, sterile morgue stands in stark contrast with the room that originally gave rise to the term.

In 18th century Paris, visitors to the Grand Châtelet—a combined court, police headquarters, and prison that served as the seat of common-law jurisdiction in pre-revolutionary France—could descend to the basement basse-geôle and peer in through the grille of the door. There, they would catch a glimpse of a small room where unidentified dead bodies were displayed to the public, strewn across the bare floor. The room became informally known as la morgue, an early definition of which appears in the 1718 Dictionnaire de l’Académie: "A place at the Châtelet, where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public view, in order that they be recognized."

Print of the Grand Châtelet of Paris by Allain Manesson-Mallet,1702
Bibliothèque de l'INHA via Europeana // Public Domain

The name for this gruesome room likely had its roots in the Archaic French verb morguer, which means "to look solemnly." Historians think that such rooms had existed in Parisian prisons since the 14th century, initially as a place where newly incarcerated prisoners would be held until identified, but later to deal with the many dead bodies found on the streets or pulled from the River Seine. (In fact, there were so many bodies in the river—both murder victims and suicides—that a huge net was stretched across the river at St. Cloud to catch the bodies as they washed downstream, from which they were transported to the Grand Châtelet.) But it was not until around the turn of the 18th century that the public were invited in and asked to try and identify the dead at la morgue.

The stench emanating from the corpses at the morgue must have been unbearable, and the public exposure to the "bad humors" was one of the reasons for the creation of a new, more hygienic morgue, at the place du Marché-Neuf on the Ile-de-la-Cité in 1804. This new morgue building (by now officially known as La Morgue) was housed in a building styled like a Greek temple that was close to the river, enabling bodies to be transported there by boat. The corpses were now displayed in a purpose-built exhibit room, with plate-glass windows and plenty of natural light, allowing crowds to gather and gawk at the corpses laid out on marble slabs. Refrigeration did not come until the 1880s, so the bodies were kept cool with a constant drip of cold water, lending the cadavers a bloated appearance. The clothes of the deceased were hung from pegs next to the dead as a further aide to their identification.

Drawing of the Paris morgue circa 1845
Hippolyte Destailleur, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

The central location of the morgue ensured a healthy traffic of people of all classes, becoming a place to see and be seen, and to catch up on the latest gossip. Its popularity as a place of spectacle grew as the 19th century progressed, stoked by being included as a must-see location in most guidebooks to Paris. On the days after a big crime had been committed, as many as 40,000 people flocked through its doors.

The morgue was also written about by luminaries such as Charles Dickens, who touched on it a number of times in his journalism, confessing in The Uncommercial Traveller (a series of sketches written between 1860-9) that it held a gruesome draw: "Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly." Dickens also described the crowds of people flocking to the morgue to gawk at the latest arrivals, idly swapping speculation on causes of death and potential identities: "It was strange to see so much heat and uproar seething about one poor spare white-haired old man, so quiet for evermore."

In 1864, the morgue at the Marché-Neuf was demolished to make way for Baron Haussmann's sweeping re-modeling of Paris. The new morgue building was situated just behind Notre Dame, again in a busy public space, re-affirming its purpose as a place to view and identify dead bodies. However, it was also in this new building that the morgue moved away from pure spectacle and began to be linked with the medical identification of bodies, as well as advances in forensics and the professionalization of policing. The new morgue had an autopsy room, a small laboratory for chemical analysis, and rooms where police and administrators could inspect the bodies and record any murders or suicides. The emphasis shifted—the morgue was no longer purely dependent on the public to identify the bodies; it now had medical, administrative, and investigative officers doing that work, moving it closer to our modern idea of what a morgue is.

By the 1880s the fame of the Paris morgue, and admiration of its now-efficient administrative structures, had spread across the world. The word morgue began to be used to describe places where the dead were kept in both Britain and America, replacing the older "dead house" and becoming synonymous with mortuary. Over time, the word morgue was also adopted in American English, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, for rooms where newspaper or magazine archives are kept—for example, The New York Times morgue, a storehouse for historical clippings, photographs, and other reference materials related to the paper.

The Paris morgue closed its doors to the public in 1907. A combination of factors led to the decision: gradually changing public attitudes to the viewing of dead bodies, concerns over hygiene and the spread of disease, and the increasing professionalization of the police and coroners. Today, the city office that has replaced it is known as the Institut médico-légal de Paris. Meanwhile, the word morgue itself has come a long way—from its roots in a grim spectacle, it's now become a place of professionalism and respect.

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Big Questions
Do Media Outlets Write Obituaries for Old or Ill Celebrities in Advance?
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iStock

Archie D'Cruz:

Oh, absolutely, and not for just the old and ill, but also for the very famous. (You can bet, for example, that pieces would have been penned on Barack Obama as soon as he was first elected president).

They are known as advance obituaries, and while not all major news organizations do it, many of the largest certainly do. Of the ones that I know of, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the BBC, CNN, and leading news agencies Reuters, AP, and AFP all maintain obits, which are updated on a regular basis.

Obit writers at The New York Times, which is known to have at least 1700 of these posts on file, will sometimes even contact the subject of their grim pieces for interviews, with the request posed as “We’re updating your biographical file” or “This is for possible future use.”

With someone like Stephen Hawking, the web tribute with images and video would very likely have been prepared in advance as well. Television networks like the BBC also pre-prepare video packages that can be aired soon after a celebrity death.

This practice of creating advance obituaries can (and often does) lead to more than just embarrassment.

The most famous recent one that I can recall was that of Apple founder Steve Jobs, declared dead by Bloomberg in 2008—three years before his actual passing. Bloomberg was updating its advance obit but wound up publishing it by mistake, sending shockwaves through Wall Street.

Its retraction was even more cringe-worthy, refusing to even name Jobs and simply saying, “An incomplete story referencing Apple Inc. was inadvertently published by Bloomberg News ... the item was never meant for publication and has been retracted.”

Several other well-known people have befallen the same fate—among them George H. W. Bush (who Der Spiegel described in its 2013 obit as a “colorless politician whose image only improved when it was compared to the later presidency of his son, George W. Bush”), and several world figures including Nelson Mandela, Gerald Ford, and Fidel Castro whose obits were wrongly published on CNN’s development site in 2003.

A (mistaken) CNN obituary for Gerald Ford

Sometimes, though, a too-hastily published obit can turn out to have a silver lining.

In 1888, several newspapers announced Alfred Nobel’s passing, in a mix-up related to his brother Ludwig’s death. A French newspaper, in its obit on the Swedish arms manufacturer, thundered “The merchant of death is dead,” adding that Nobel “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before (through his invention of dynamite).”

On reading that report, Nobel is said to have become distressed about how the world would remember him. It led to him bequeathing the bulk of his estate to form the Nobel Prize in 1895. He died a year later.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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