If the idea of a cultural institution devoted to disease and death sounds morbid, that’s because, by definition, it is. Set to open in Gowanus this Saturday, the Morbid Anatomy Museum will be one of the world’s biggest wunderkammers (cabinets of curiosities), displaying artifacts and ideas deemed too taboo to talk about in polite society.
“I believe death is taboo because it’s treated as this horribly tragic event where your loved one is taken away before their body is cold and they’re pumped full of chemicals, made over, and laid out in this strange place with other dead people,” says Tracy Martin, the museum’s executive director. “We’re so removed from the whole process of actually experiencing death that it’s become frightening. Death is a natural part of life.”
Martin may feel more comfortable with death than most. Not unlike the Six Feet Under clan, she grew up in a family that ran a funeral parlor. But by putting our fears on display, she hopes to change our perception of them. “The more you learn about something, the less frightening it becomes,” says Martin. “There is a beauty in death.”
It’s the obscure allure of macabre material that Martin and Joanna Ebenstein, creative director of the museum, are most interested in exploring in their new 4,200-square-foot space on the corner of 7th Street and 3rd Avenue.
“We moved into a former nightclub with three floors,” Martin says. “The ground is earmarked for workshops, film screenings and some lectures. The first floor is the cafe/gift shop and will host most lectures, and then upstairs is the exhibition space and library.”
In a lot of ways, the Morbid Anatomy Museum is an extension of Ebenstein’s ongoing interest in the esoteric and arcane. In 2007, she started the Morbid Anatomy blog as a place to compile research she was conducting on hidden and neglected histories and the material culture of death. The popularity of the blog led her to open a research library and private collection of her discoveries, artistic, scientific and religious artifacts like wax models of diseased body parts and natural history specimens, as well as 2,500 rare or out-of-print books, inside Proteus Gowanus.
It also spawned a lecture series, Morbid Anatomy Presents, which invited academics, artists, collectors, morticians, rogue scholars and autodidacts to conduct conversations about everything from postmortem photography to death-themed cabarets and books bound by human skin. Recently, these talks were turned into an anthology.
The museum’s first exhibit, Art of Mourning, which opens to the public on Saturday, will showcase never-before exhibited materials, including post-mortem photography; hair art shadowboxes and jewelry; memorial cards; mourning paraphernalia; death masks; and spirit photography. The specimens by in large belong to Dr. Stanley B. Burns, founder of The Burns Archive, author of Sleeping Beauty, Memorial Photography in America, and technical consultant to the HBO-Cinemax series The Knick.
“While death is one thing we’ll be looking at at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, we are committed more generally to forgotten history and material culture of all sorts,” Ebenstein says. “Death is obviously a big one, but there are many other topics we’ll be addressing in addition. Future exhibitions, for example, will cover such things as dime museums and the Victorian anthropomorphic taxidermy of Walter Potter.”
It’s common for a cultural institution to have collections of curiosities, but the Morbid Anatomy Museum is rare in its scope and specialization. When asked if there was any other museum of its kind in the world, Ebenstein said, “Our closest kin is probably The Wellcome Collection in London. This museum was founded the same year as Morbid Anatomy and is based on the collection of early 20th century pharmaceutical magnate Henry Wellcome. He was kind of like the William Randolf Hearst of medical collecting–when he died, he had amassed over one million objects, many of which were still to be found in unopened crates in storehouses.”
Starting Saturday, Morbid Anatomy Museum will be open to the public six days a week, but if your curiosity won’t let you wait that long, consider buying a ticket to its preview party this Friday.