19th Century Wax Figures Slice Open the Human Body

Travel back and experience the ghastly wonders of Castan's Panopticum.

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Oct 29 2015, 3:30pm

Wax model of child with diphtheria. All images copyright Daniel Schvarcz and courtesy of the Morbid Anatomy Museum, unless otherwise noted

Berlin, 1869: Castan’s Panopticum opens its doors to the public, displaying a vast array of wax models intended to entertain, shock, titillate, horrify and, somewhere along the way, educate its visitors. “Castan’s was a wax museum its German contemporaries described as an Allesschau, a ‘show of everything,’” writes Peter M. McIsaac, professor of German and Museum Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Anatomical and pathological waxworks were staged alongside stuffed alligators, mummies, human specimens, death masks of murderers, and ethnographic busts (whose antiquated notions of race are horrifying in their own right). Live performances were often thrown into the mix, with dancers, ventriloquists, and freak show acts put on exhibit.

Like many panoptica, Castan’s closed in the early 1920s. Yet while similar exhibitions were promptly disbanded, sold off in pieces, melted down, or otherwise destroyed, Castan’s, amazingly, suffered no such fate. Today the 150-piece collection has made its way from Germany to New York, in the hands of Ryan Matthew Cohn (of TV’s Oddities), curator of the House of Wax exhibition currently on view at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. The show, which features 35 wax objects from Castan’s, serves as a sneak preview before the full collection goes permanently on view at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema that is set to open in Downtown Brooklyn early next year.

Anatomical Venus by E. E. Hammer

“Our museums of natural history just don’t have this stuff,” explains Cohn. “It became so taboo that the only places you might see things of this nature are medical museums.” Indeed, as McIsaac mentions, “In terms of workmanship and anatomical accuracy, the individual objects that modelers made were often indistinguishable from those created for serious research purposes, and it is no accident that medical modelers who sold to panoptica also collaborated with or supplied researchers in medical and scientific institutes.”

One such 19th century craftsman was the prolific E. E. Hammer, whose Anatomical Venuses—full-body female waxes whose internal organs can be removed, piece by piece—are on display at Morbid Anatomy. Medical pieces would be cast from living patients or cadavers, while the Venuses and other large, idealized figures were usually sculpted. At his own panopticum in Munich, Hammer presented a wax tableau of The Nightmare, inspired by Henry Fuseli’s painting of the same name.

Ethnographic busts

“I’ve been interested in things like this for a long time,” says Joanna Ebenstein, the creative director at Morbid Anatomy Museum. “There’s never been a show like this in the US. Because these collections weren’t taken seriously, they disappeared.” Ebenstein wants to broaden how we define, understand, and shape museum exhibitions. “A lot of what we show is drawn from this antiquated history about what museums used to be. There was a form that became appropriate in the mid- to late 19th century, which is what museums are today, but before that, the line between the educational and the spectacular was slippery. Part of what we want to draw on is this idea of what museums have been, and can be.”

“The Nightmare” tableau exhibited at the popular “München Panoptikum” of E. E. Hammer. Courtesy of Valentin-Karlstadt-Musäum, München

The wax atelier of E. E. Hammer, Munich, late 19th century. Courtesy of Valentin-Karlstadt-Musäum, München

Moulages demonstrating lupus and leprosy

Wax model of food and digestive tract

House of Wax: Anatomical, Pathological & Ethnographic Waxworks from Castn’s Panopticum, Berlin, 1869–1922 is on view at the Morbid Anatomy Museum until February 15, 2016. Learn more here.

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