Morbid Curiosities in Brooklyn’s industrial Gowanus district.
My interest in all things morbid started at a young age. I remember being strangely fascinated with watching my father slaughter and butcher our farm animals, which would eventually end up on our dinner table. I was also a taphophile (someone who loves cemeteries) before I even knew what the word meant.
Joanna Ebenstein, founder and Creative Director of the Morbid Anatomy Museum located in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, had similar experiences growing up in Concord, CA.
From collecting black widow spiders as a child to skinning a great horned owl when she was 16 years old, Joanna’s morbid curiosity continued into adulthood.
It all started in 2007 with “Morbid Anatomy,” a photography exhibition about medical museums around the world.
After collecting tens of thousands of photographs, Joanna began her Morbid Anatomy Blog, as a tool to help organize her research for the exhibition. It immediately had a following.
Soon her private collection of more than 2,000 books on medical history, death rituals, the human body and esoterica found a home in a tiny rented space at Proteus Gowanus Gallery, an arts incubator tucked away in an alley near the Gowanus Canal. The Morbid Anatomy Library started hosting lectures and workshops and began attracting a vibrant community of artists and collectors, including identical twins, Tracy and Tonya.
Tracy Hurley Martin, wife of Vince Clarke (English synth-pop star and founding member of Depeche Mode and half of the band Erasure) and sister Tonya Hurley, a bestselling author, attended a talk that Joanna was giving about the cult of Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, at a bookstore in Brooklyn in 2013. It was there that the idea for a larger museum space was formed.
The new three-story, 4,200-square-foot museum opened in 2014. Tracy Hurley Martin is now the CEO of the museum, while her sister is on the board of directors.
The ground-floor includes a cafe and gift shop…
…where you can grab a mourning cookie and a copy of Joanna’s book “The Morbid Anatomy Anthology”–-edited by Joanna and Colin Dickey, author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius. The 500 page, lavishly illustrated, hardbound and full color book features 28 essays based on some of the most memorable lectures hosted by Morbid Anatomy between 2008 and 2014.
I’m a big fan of taxidermy, so I was really excited to get a chance to see the current exhibit: Taxidermy: Art, Science & Immortality Featuring Walter Potter’s Kittens’ Wedding, currently showing in the third floor exhibition space.
It includes over 100 artfully preserved animals, many of which are antique pieces.
Walter Potter (2 July 1835 – 21 May 1918) was an English taxidermist noted for his anthropomorphic dioramas featuring mounted animals mimicking human life, which he displayed at his Museum of Curiosities in Bramber, Sussex, England.
On display for nearly 150 years, the exhibition was a well-known and popular example of “Victorian whimsy” and contained approximately 10,000 specimens.
The Victorian enthusiasm for stuffed animals had waned by the museum’s later days, and it deflected claims of animal cruelty by displaying notices stating that all the animals had died naturally and that “in any case, they were all over 100 years old.”
In 2003, the museum he founded was divided at auction and placed in the hands of private collectors.
During my visit I had the opportunity to meet both Joanna Ebenstein, founder and Creative Director of the Morbid Anatomy Museum and J. D. Powe, curator of: Taxidermy: Art, Science & Immortality Featuring Walter Potter’s Kittens’ Wedding.
The highlight of the exhibit’s anthropomorphic section, is an elaborate wedding scene titled “The Kittens’ Wedding.” Created by Walter Potter in 1890, it features about 20 kittens fully dressed in Victorian-era attire including jewelry and boutonnieres.
This was the first time the kittens have been on display in many years. Powe, who’s also a collector, purchased the piece at an auction earlier this year for about $120,000. The piece was eventually sold again to Sabrina Hansen , a founder of a cat sanctuary in upstate New York.
A section titled “Freaks of Nature” showcases peculiar animals, such as taxidermy of a four-tusk walrus and a co-joined calf.
Whether Potter’s work is regarded as eccentric or distasteful to the contemporary eye, it is worth taking into account that during the nineteenth century the art of taxidermy was a popular practice and very much ingrained within daily life.
A wax moulage from the Morbid Anatomy Library. Moulages are wax models taken from casts of diseased body parts that are then colored to look realistic. They are used in medical education, and exist in most medical collections in the US and Europe.
Another piece from the Morbid Anatomy Library
The Morbid Anatomy Museum is located at 424-A 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215. Taxidermy: Art, Science & Immortality Featuring Walter Potter’s Kittens’ Wedding runs through November 6, 2016.