Finding the Beauty of Death at Brooklyn's Morbid Anatomy Museum

How could you not think about death, and what does it say about you if you don't?

Kim Kelly

Kim Kelly

All images used with permission of the Morbid Anatomy Museum

The squat, pitch-black building that houses the Morbid Anatomy Museum rises up from an unassuming block in the heart of Gowanus, a few blocks down from the G train and within sniffing distance of the diseased canal. Glass walls offer a peek into the abyss, while dead-eyed statues patrol the windows and beckon visitors inside. The museum is nearing the end of its first year, and business is—if not booming—chugging along at a healthy pace, buoyed by a cheeky social media presence and a built-in community of artists, taxidermists, filmmakers, grown-up goths, and assorted oddballs.

I make my way up the stairs past an assortment of skulls and taxidermied critters, and co-founder and curator Joanna Ebenstein greets me in the main exhibition room. Dressed in a simple black shift and owlish spectacles, Ebenstein's vibe is far more Earth Mother than Vampira. She radiates positive energy and genuine excitement as she walks me through the current exhibit, and beams like a kid on Christmas when we get to the two-headed kitten. Her enthusiasm is contagious and is reflected in the contented faces of the staff and volunteers who busily scurry around us. For a place that functions as a modern-day temple of death, it's pretty damn sunny inside, and that's exactly how Ebenstein likes it.

Two-headed kitten in a bell jar, 19th century. Prepared by legendary Victorian anthropomorphic taxidermist Walter Potter, England; from the collection of Carol Holzner. Photo courtesy of Chris Bradley

"The idea of Morbid Anatomy itself came from me wanting to reclaim the idea of morbidity," she explains. It's a funny thought, given how warm and smiley she is. She makes as little noise as possible when we talk, gently directing my attention to treasures like the small jar of tattooed human skin or the Bosch-esque painting of dancing cats. Her eyes crinkle with delight when we discover a mutual acquaintance or happen upon a particularly precious print. It's not hard to imagine a bookish version of her younger self blasting New Order and disappearing between the pages of a medical history tome. "My whole life I've been called morbid, and at a certain point, I thought, why? Why is it morbid to think about death? It's the greatest human mystery, which religion used to answer but no longer does. How could you not think about death, and what does it say about you if you don't? I think it's morbid to live in a world where you think you can make it go away by not thinking about it."

Humanity has been obsessed with the concept of death since the first Homo sapiens keeled over, and over the centuries, we have found countless ways to express that fear and curiosity. The Morbid Anatomy Museum is full of them: Whether it takes the form of the waxen memento mori figurine trailing entrails onto an oaken table, the baroque Day of the Dead skull winking out from behind a display case, or the shadowbox decorated with wreaths of human hair that graces the museum's whitewashed walls, our relationship with death and mourning has always dominated our most sacred moments. Those rituals are fading, though; as increasing numbers of Americans turn away from organized religion, heaven seems further away than ever, and the growing popularity of cremation and green burial shows that we're rethinking the ways we dispose of our corporeal selves. Ebenstein's convinced that we're in the midst of a transitional stage in our evolution as a secular society.

"I think all of the rituals we have around death used to serve a function and were meaningful, but now ring hollow for people; they don't work anymore. I think there's something really wonderful in how people are trying to find meaningful ways to communicate and commemorate their loss now that the old rituals are falling short of our needs because we've changed in such significant ways," she says, breezing by a whimsical display of taxidermied squirrels clustered around a Lilliputian bar to point out a tiny malformed pig fetus. "What really strikes me in a post-religious age is how people relate to objects. They still hold power. Maybe that is the church of the modern age—a way to have this feeling of something beyond ourselves that moves us in a certain deep way. Maybe we don't necessarily believe in God anymore, but there's still this need to have that exchange with something bigger than ourselves."

At this point, I'm fully converted. I'd gone into this assignment with a healthy appreciation for the morbid and macabre but left fully ensnared by Ebenstein's disarming manner, bright-eyed zeal, and trove of treasures. My own fascination with death arose after the unexpected and tragic demise of a dear friend. Being forced to confront mortality generally leads people in one of two directions—either their fear of the end increases, or, less commonly, they reach out and embrace it. I took the lefthand path, perhaps encouraged by a lifetime spent worshipping black metal (the Devil's lounge music) and a childhood spent helping my dad butcher deer carcasses. Either way, as soon as I set foot in that monolith of the macabre, I felt at home. I find myself eager to learn more, to keep talking and keep listening and avoid leaving that sacred place at all costs. The library alone could've kept me busy until my bones turned to dust, and it's gratifying to know that I'm far from the only person who sees the beauty in decay, deformity, and dreadful tales.

Tableau of chipmunks at a bar

As it turns out, I'd played right into Ebenstein's hand. Above all, her goal with the museum is to cultivate the kind of space where those with an interest in death, the macabre, the odd, and the occult can gather and explore their interests in peace. Morbid Anatomy itself started as a photography project of Ebenstein's, then grew once she started her blog, made her collection of books available to the public, and started hosting lectures out of a tiny room in Gowanus. Once she crossed paths with museum co-founder and now CEO Tracy Hurley Martin (who comes from a family of morticians and is married to British musician Vincent Clarke of Depeche Mode) things picked up steam rapidly.

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Now, not only does the museum host myriad lectures and special events, it also offers classes in arcane arts and ancient skills from taxidermy to Victorian hair art, and is gearing up to celebrate its first birthday next month. Its events have begun to sell out rapidly—I barely made it into a recent talk on how Soviet bootleggers sold Western music on discarded X-rays—and tickets to the museum's celebratory all-day Festival of Arcane Knowledge and Devil's Masquerade fundraiser are selling fast. Though Ebenstein confides that the nonprofit institution is "scraping by" on donations and the proceeds from its gift shop and its in-house, coffee-slinging, treat-shilling Black Gold cafe, she seems delighted with the success her kooky little venture has already found.

A mummified, seven-legged, two-bodied piglet

"When I started the blog, the reason it was successful is that it was online; it's super niche, but online, those super niche people can find you. At the time, I was working in children's publishing, and I wrote under my initials instead of my full name because I didn't want my boss to know I was into all of this weird death stuff. In 2007, it was a very different cultural scene, and this stuff was seen as very subversive at that point, and it's not anymore—now everybody thinks it's great!" Ebenstein explains, gesturing at a cluster of young women in silver and black huddled around a display case. "It's a moment, and I'm sure that what we've done with the MA project has had a part in creating that moment, but I also feel that it's part of a zeitgeist, a much broader interest in death and 'weird stuff' that's happening now. After I started the blog, I started getting emails from people, and then suddenly there was this whole world. I was blown away—I hadn't known anyone else liked this! There had never been anyone else in my life who liked this sort of thing, ever."

The feeling of being the only one—the only punk in town, the only kid in school who'd rather read Poe than play kickball—is surely something that a great deal of us can relate to, and Ebenstein understands it on a much deeper level than your average museum curator might. After all, she's one of us.

"That's the the tradition that has influenced me the most: goth, new wave, new romantic. I have a love-hate relationship with goth," she admits. "I love what they draw from, but hate how they execute it. I hate their poor quality control. I had funny-colored hair and crazy makeup, but I was disappointed by them, because I thought I'd found my people; they allegedly loved books and ideas, but the ones I met were not like that, and I was heartbroken. God bless 'em, they do have good music, but bad poetry."

Museum interior

Despite what its imposing black facade and decidedly eccentric subject matter might lead one to assume, the Morbid Anatomy Museum is far from gloomy. It's downright cheerful in there amid the specimen jars and books about cannibalism. To Ebenstein's chagrin, an experiment with Groupon led to a brace of bad reviews from penny-pinching Yelpers who'd walked in expecting to encounter pure gore, something out of American Horror Story, or rows of pickled babies à la Philadelphia's deformity lover's paradise, the Mütter Museum. She sighs, "It's here if you want to find it—open up any book and look at the pictures—but this place is intended to be thoughtful and thought-provoking, not shocking."

The museum feels more like a life-size version of a Victorian explorer's cabinet of curiosities, full of secrets and endlessly appealing, with a few creepy-crawlies lurking in the corners. Those who come in knowing what to expect are a loyal and diverse crowd, and Ebenstein glows as she describes a little girl whose mother gamely brings her over nearly every weekend to wander through the exhibits, offer suggestions, and take part in the museum's wildly popular taxidermy classes. "There is definitely a subcultural element, but there's an academic side too. If it has a good effect on people and helps girls feel better about what they like, then I will be a happy person," she chirps. "I wish it had existed when I was a little girl, and I just love it when smart, nerdy girls who like nature come in."

Since Ebenstein and I spoke, the museum has moved on to its latest exhibition, Do the Spirits Return? From Dark Arts to Sleight of Hand in Early 20th Century Stage Magic, which illuminates the too-good-to-be-true story of the now obscure but wholly fascinating stage magician Howard Thurston—con man, carnival barker, missionary student, and, at one time, Houdini's greatest competition. "It's all about magic and the idea of the ways in which these older ideas of magic, of real magic, gets embedded in the imagery and practice of stage magic in the early twentieth century, when it was still big entertainment," Ebenstein says. "It's also about how humans want trickery, and the complexity of deception."

I haven't yet made the trek back down to Gowanus to visit this new set of visiting spirits, but I'm excited to do so. This time, instead of anthropomorphic animals or ancient prosthetics, I'll be met with talking skulls, séances, spiritualism, torture theater, and echoes of voices from beyond. Thanks to an obsessive collector named Rory Feldman, a slew of posters, artwork, and props from the golden Dark Ages of stage magic and sleight of hand will return to the spotlight once more and, in true Morbid Anatomy fashion, seek to lift the thin veil separating the living and the dead. If you've ever felt an inexplicable pull toward the weird, the esoteric, or the spooky, you'd do well to join the rest of us—the death-obsessed and morbidly inclined—down in our cozy corner of South Brooklyn. We're not too hard to find any more.

Kim Kelly is on Twitter.