The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins.
—Edgar Allan Poe
And for your own glimpse into the “shadowy and vague”, there is no better place than Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum. The doors to this private museum were opened just over a year ago by Tracy Hurley Martin and Joanna Ebenstein.
Joanna Ebenstein, the Morbid Anatomy Museum’s creative director and driving force, says her passion for all things strange, obscure and morbid goes all the way back to her youth. Early on she started collecting artifacts, objects and books in pursuit of this interest, all with the early support of her father. That collection eventually grew to over 2,000 artifacts, which are now part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Joanne, a graphic designer by profession, brought her personal interests and day job together in the form of the popular “Morbid Anatomy” blog. And this planted the seed for what would eventually find form in the current Brooklyn brick and mortar headquarters.
The ominous black-painted three-story building stands out amongst the ramshackle architecture which constitutes the current state of evolution in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn. Come to think of it, the museum’s interior landscape of oddities and out-of-context mementoes is almost a microcosm of the neighborhood’s odd mix of store fronts and industrial buildings. Small businesses, social clubs and small manufacturing facilities, seemingly from a bygone era, sit uneasily next to startups, hipster boutiques and hastily assembled apartment buildings. Like the museum’s collections, the neighborhood juxtapositions are jarring, but all the more interesting for their strangeness.
Stepping in off the street, the museum’s shop offers a nicely weird array of books, objects and souvenirs. A few steps more and you can enjoy coffee drinks and baked goods while you acclimate to the environment.
I met up with Joanne at the coffee shop and we headed up to the first floor library to start our tour.
The Morbid Anatomy Museum’s mission is to make a home for the community which shares its interest and to give wider public access to what are usually inaccessible collections.
And it is in the library that this mission is manifest. On view are books and objects covering a wide range of topics: high and low culture, death and beauty. Various academic disciplines are represented: medicine, magic, natural history, the occult. It is in the overlap of these various pieces of literature that one can begin to see the roots of the ideas that have eventually found physical expression and a place in the museum’s displays.
What I find fascinating about the museum’s collections is that while the objects you encounter are unfamiliar and/or bizarre, they are all mementoes of larger ideas that have at one time found expression in societies around the world. So at their roots are quite practical questions. And those involved in these explorations have relied on objects and visual media to explore their ideas. In looking at these objects and learning about their backgrounds one gains a better understanding of the ever forward-moving progress of civilization.
The larger rooms in the Museum are dedicated to temporary exhibits. During my visit there was a fascinating show called “Do the Spirits return?”. This show centered on the life of Howard Thurston (1869-1936), a contemporary of Houdini who, though little known today, was an equally compelling figure. Part missionary student, part con man, part carny, he eventually became one of the most famous magicians of his time.
The show explored the intersection between spiritualism, torture theatre, the “dark arts”, and early 20th century stage magic. Thurston’s story is told through posters, photographs and artifacts collected by Brooklynite Ron Feldman.
So, for a bit of a deep dive into the fascinating offerings of one of New York’s boroughs, this small non-profit Museum should definitely be on your list of activities for your next New York visit.
Oh, and in case you ever wondered about mouse taxidermy, Victorian mourning jewelry or insect shadow boxes, be sure to check the Morbid Anatomy Museum’s website to book one of their popular lectures or workshops exploring these specialty topics.
< More fascinating vacation destinations await. Let’s go.
For more information about the Morbid Anatomy Museum, go to; www.morbidanatomymuseum.org. To book a lecture and workshop, go to; www.morbidanatomymuseum.org/events/. Events sell out quickly so make sure you book well in advance.
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