Inside the Creepy Collections of an Oddities Museum

Take a peek (if you dare) at weird wonders from the Morbid Anatomy Museum, which just closed its doors for the last time.

Just before Christmas, the Morbid Anatomy Museum gave up the ghost.

The Brooklyn, N.Y., museum was a rare mix of spectacle and scholarship, hosting lectures, workshops, and exhibits that encouraged frank conversations about death.

Exhibits included an antique wax figure of a German serial killer, a “Beauchene skeleton” in which skull bones are “exploded” apart for 3-D viewing, and life-size wax sculptures of nude women that open to reveal anatomically correct organs. Many of the pieces were owned by private collectors who had never publicly displayed them, and some may now be permanently out of the public eye.

“It’s a museum dedicated to cycles of life and death, so we should be able to accept dying,” says museum co-founder and curator Joanna Ebenstein. Her Morbid Anatomy blog and personal library were the inspiration for the museum, which opened in June 2013.

But supporting a 4,200-square-foot museum in Brooklyn is expensive, and getting corporate sponsors for anything bearing the word “morbid” was a challenge, Ebenstein says.

That doesn’t reflect a lack of morbid curiosity on the part of the public, museum co-founder Tracy Hurley Martin. “If anything, we were amazed at how many more like-minded people were out there than we expected, and I take a lot of pride in MAM’s role in bringing them together,” she says.

When I spoke to Ebenstein about the closing, she was sorting through boxes of books from the museum’s extensive library, which was also her personal collection. “That’s now in my home and in my friend’s basement,” she says.

Ebenstein’s favorite exhibit during the museum’s two-and-a-half-year run was The Art of Mourning, which featured Victorian art made by regular people from the hair of their dead relatives. “It led people to question their attitudes about death, and that’s what I wanted the whole museum to do,” she says. (See "Trendy Victorian-Era Jewelry Was Made From Hair.")

The Morbid Anatomy Museum's exhibit The Art of Mourning included this shadow-box art made from human hair. During Victorian times, mourners would often make jewellery and other objects using hair from deceased loved ones. 
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOANNA EBENSTEIN

The displays of hair jewellery and shadowboxes—along with death masks and postmortem photographs made as mementoes of loved ones—shed light on an era when people were more comfortable with displaying the depths of their mourning.

“It’s not just that some weirdo in the 19th century had a picture of a dead baby hanging on their wall. This was what a whole culture did for a long time,” Ebenstein told me at the exhibit in 2014. We were, in fact, standing at the time in front of a photograph of what appeared to be a dead baby, and it was striking to see how lovingly the dead were posed and photographed for what may have been their only portraits.

The Anatomical Venus was the centrepiece of another exhibit focused on wax figures from Castan’s Panopticum of 1869-1922. Panoptica were popular wax museums that mixed education with just enough elements of a freak show to titillate audiences.

Anatomical Venuses were life-size anatomical models of women, often depicted as pregnant, that were used to teach anatomy. They showed women who, although depicted in death, were beautiful and almost sensual. Their bellies could be opened up and realistic organs pulled out, culminating in the revelation of a fetus in the womb.

The Anatomical Venus was one of the most complex wax figures used in training physicians. The internal organs of these sleeping beauties could be removed to illustrate the female reproductive system.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOANNA EBENSTEIN

Other wax models are shockingly realistic for the time, depicting not only disfigurements from diseases such as leprosy but even a doctor’s disembodied hands delivering a baby as it pushes out of an anatomically correct vagina.

The museum was also famous for its taxidermy displays, which were nothing like the usual savanna scenes at natural history museums. “The Kitten Wedding” by the British taxidermist Walter Potter was described on the museum’s website as “equal parts perverse and adorable, and utterly spellbinding.”

I can’t think of any better way to describe it. In the diorama, 15 dead kittens play their parts in a Victorian wedding ceremony complete with bridesmaids as one male kitten scowls disapprovingly at the proceedings.

The centrepiece of a Morbid Anatomy Museum taxidermy exhibit was Walter Potter's famous diorama The Kittens' Wedding, made circa 1890 with 15 kittens. At that time, taxidermy was much more popular than today as a home art form.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOANNA EBENSTEIN

Ebenstein has always taken a matter-of-fact view of her morbid exhibits. It’s all meant to get people thinking about what’s considered normal and appropriate when it comes to talking about death and other subjects that “fall through the cracks,” as she says.

“I think we’re always interested in looking at sex and death,” she told me in 2014. “Our idea of how it’s appropriate to look at it has changed, but people still want to look.”

Header image: Wax figures called moulages were popular as teaching tools for doctors in the 18th and 19th centuries. These display the symptoms of lupus and leprosy. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOANNA EBENSTEIN

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