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Museum of 'Morbid Anatomy' to Open in Gowanus

By Leslie Albrecht | December 13, 2013 7:23am
 The museum seeks to exhibit the "uncanny and overlooked," organizers say.
Museum of 'Morbid Anatomy' Opening in Gowanus
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GOWANUS — When someone needs to get rid of a human skeleton, they turn to Joanna Ebenstein.

Strangers have given the historian skeletons, the scaly claws of a dead emu, a vintage photo of a coffin and other objects too ominous to keep around the house.

The creator of the Morbid Anatomy Library — a private collection of books and curios that explores the "interstices of art and medicine, death and culture" — will soon turn her collection into the Morbid Anatomy Museum, a 4,200-square-foot space that will host classes on taxidermy and have a café where visitors can snack on funeral-themed foods like "mourning cookies."

The museum, backed by the Brooklyn Arts Council, will be built inside a three-level former nightclub on Third Avenue near Seventh Street and house spooky artifacts like a stuffed two-headed duckling, a lifelike wax model of a smallpox patient and an opossum fetus floating in a jar.

Ebenstein said she's founding the museum to create an institution devoted to "objects that fall between the cracks," where visitors will explore shifting cultural attitudes about death and beauty in an educational yet fun setting.

"I’m interested in finding a way to be both educational and spectacular and fun, and to have a sense of irreverence, but also deal with things that no one else is dealing with," she said, citing P.T. Barnum's American Museum as inspiration. It housed an aquarium, arrowheads, wax figures and a theater.

Classes now taught at the library's current home — a small, windowless room at the arts organization Proteus Gowanus — will be taught at the museum, including lessons on antique horror theater, the history of the devil, and hair art — the Victorian practice of making jewelry from the hair of departed loved ones.

Through private investors and online donations, Ebenstein has put together enough money to start work on the museum, which she plans to open in the spring of 2014.

Ebenstein has recruited a staff that includes artist Aaron Beebe, who's worked for the Coney Island Museum. Author Colin Dickey, who wrote a book about grave robbing, will be managing director. The CEO will be Tracy Hurley Martin, a marketing professional whose past clients have included Prince and the Olsen twins. Board members include Betsy Bradley, a historian who previously worked at the New York Public Library.

For the museum's first show, Ebenstein wants to display the work of Walter Potter, a Victorian-era taxidermist who posed stuffed kittens and other animals in typical English  scenes like croquet games and tea parties.

Straddling the fine line between cute and creepy is a running theme for Ebenstein, a 42-year-old graphic designer who has a degree in intellectual history. She is most interested in objects that blend the bizarre and the beautiful, she said. A prime example is the "anatomical Venus," a wax figure of a beautiful young woman that opens up to reveal dissectible organs. It was used to educate 18th century medical students. Modern viewers may find it gross, but at the time it was a popular public exhibit.

"I’m interested in looking at objects from the past and seeing what they can tell us about the present," she said. "There's something you feel when you look at it, a kind of flickering, a kind of intrigue — confusing things that you just don’t know how to make sense of. These are the things I’m drawn to and these are the things the museum will explore."

Ebenstein started the blog Morbid Anatomy in 2007 to organize her photos and research, eventually starting the library in 2008. Back then, the material she was displaying and writing about seemed so subversive that she didn't use her real name on her website.

But in recent years, Ebenstein's grim fascinations have been embraced by the mainstream, as evidenced by the television show "Oddities," about an East Village antique shop that sells the types of objects Ebenstein collects. The star of the show, Evan Michelson, will serve on the board of the Morbid Anatomy Museum.

Ebenstein opted to launch the museum not only because of the growing popularity of the macabre but also because she wanted to create a home for the unconventional in rapidly gentrifying Gowanus.

"Developers are literally knocking on people’s doors," Ebenstein said. "It's like the next land rush. I would like to put a foothold of quirky Brooklyn down before it's too late…[The museum] is kind of my manifesto against the corporatization of the neighborhood."