On a cushion on a table on an oriental rug in the middle of the room, two pregnant women lie still and naked. One is content, with legs crossed casually at the ankles and a hand resting behind her head; the other is undergoing what looks like a C-section. A woman stands before them, frowning for several seconds, quietly muttering the words, "Oh my God." The skin on their abdomens is pulled back to reveal their intestines, other organs (shifted during pregnancy), and, of course, the babies they're carrying.
These two figures, called "anatomical Venuses," form the centerpiece of the small but grotesquely captivating House of Wax exhibition at Brooklyn's Morbid Anatomy Museum. The show, which opened this weekend and runs through Valentine's Day of next year, is aimed at showcasing what the museum's creative director, Joanna Ebenstein, calls a "tradition we've tried to sweep under the rug": panoptica, or wax museums, which were popular from the 18th to early 20th centuries in western Europe and North America. Like a more gruesome and relevant Madame Tussauds, these panoptica—also called Allesschau in German, which literally translates to "a show of everything"—were visited for a mixture of education and entertainment, and they featured medical and anthropological models, "death masks" of notable people, and miscellaneous cultural, historical, or mythical figures, all made of wax. The more than 40 works on display at the Morbid Anatomy Museum represent a fraction of the Castan's Panopticum collection, which existed in Berlin from 1869–1922 and could bring in as many as 5,000 visitors on a Sunday.
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Shows like this often threaten to veer into kitsch. Words like morbid or macabre have become shorthand for a predictable cultural fascination with a 19th century of which Edgar Allen Poe is mascot, and they certainly describe the House of Wax exhibit. However, its organizers have constructed it with a visible passion and attention to detail that keep the more sideshow-esque aspects firmly rooted in history. "Look at this weird stuff from the past!" is certainly an applicable exclamation here, but not in a cheesy way.
Although the pieces today would be, in cities smaller and less progressive than New York, probably labeled not safe for children, in the 1800s panoptica were popular family attractions, competing with sideshows, dime museums, and even early cinema for viewers. (Still, the "anatomical cabinets" were often marketed as "for adults only," cost an extra fee, and offered admission to only one gender at a time.) According to an introductory essay by Dr. Peter M. McIsaac, a professor of German and museum studies at the University of Michigan, "the sensational, shocking and sometimes morbid qualities were clear commercial calculation on the part of entrepreneurs whose livelihoods depended on drawing the largest possible paying audience."
Surrounding the life-size Venuses—whose bodies show division lines where students would have "dissected" them, to reveal wax organs as well as, almost always, a fetus—are an array of eye-widening anatomical representations, which are the big draws. A wall of cabinets depicts "difficult births," including babies' heads indented with marks from forceps and gloved, disembodied hands pulling newborns out of wombs. (Throughout, the pubic hair is strikingly realistic.) There are squashed intestines demonstrating the effects of long-term corsetry (a cautionary tale for any waist-training advocate), lungs afflicted with tuberculosis, and placenta. Appropriately for the time period, syphilis and leprosy sores also feature prominently, as do, according to McIsaac's essay, "many of the gender, sexual and racial stereotypes that marked late nineteenth and early twentieth-century European (and North American) culture."
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Indeed, it's not all fun and gore. A series of ethnographic busts crudely representing, for example, a "Chinese nobleman" and a "bushwoman" from southeast Africa, had Ebenstein particularly concerned about how visitors would react, though she ultimately decided it would be worse to leave them out. "No one quite knows what to make of this stuff," she told me in the museum's lobby—which also houses the "Death Cafe"—after I'd gone through the show. As medical wax museums started to fall out of fashion—because of the rise of obscenity laws, because of the fear of dangerous "quack" medical practitioners who also operated anatomical museums, and because modern preservation techniques meant medical students could practice on actual corpses instead of lifelike wax replicas—the public came to see these collections as "distasteful." "The divisions between art and science, between spectacle and education," according to Ebenstein, became too uncomfortably difficult to discern.
Since we all much prefer to be on the side of history with better understandings of gender, sexual, and racial differences, Ebenstein and curator Ryan Matthew Cohn focused on highlighting the complexity of the collection and its history, highlighting the artistry and expertise required to create these models. (Many of the figures in the collection, including the two anatomical Venuses, were created by the prolific wax sculptor E.E. Hammer, whose angular signature is carved into the thigh of a woman experiencing a difficult birth on the far wall, and the show begins with a picture of an extraordinary-seeming wax sculpture he made based on Fuseli's famous 1781 painting The Nightmare.) Ultimately, in order to present the show—and the historical culture it symbolizes—accurately, and not wanting to imply a nostalgia for a time more racist, Ebenstein elected to add a disclaimer: "Viewer discretion is advised as some of the artifacts in this show are graphic in nature, including nudity and antiquated approaches to race. We believe that it is our duty as a cultural and educational institution to critically display items that may otherwise be ignored or erased from cultural memory. By better understanding the past, perhaps we can better understand the present."