Death Displayed at Brooklyn Museum

Curiously, children fascinate themselves with the very things that cause adults to cringe–like digging a finger into their little noses in order to taste their sweet discoveries or perhaps picking up a tantalizing black widow spider from the dirt that’s on its last gasp of life.

Free from entrapments of what’s couth or uncouth, children seem to act upon their gut impulses to examine and create.

What often gets disregarded or feared is their instinct in making sense of death, another oddity in their new, strange world.

Joanna Ebenstein, founder of the Morbid Anatomy Project and cofounder of the Morbid Anatomy Museum, recalls her own childhood interest in death. A major mission of her Brooklyn museum is to help encourage mainstream discussions on the topic.

“When I was a kid I collected black widows and gave them to my local museum,” describes Ebenstein. “When animals would die–smaller animals like sea urchins–my dad would put them in formaldehyde.”

She felt lucky to have parents that supported her otherwise “strange” (or downright morbid) hobbies.

“It’s my belief that all children have these interests, and at certain points, especially if you are a girl, you are told it’s not so cool,” indicates Ebenstein.

Her curiosities eventually led her in pursuit of an artistic project that took her all over Europe, collecting various photos and books on medical museums. The project was called the Anatomical Theatre, which depicted archives of photos of the human body, disease, and death from medical museums of the western world.

To organize her work she began a blog that grew a following of people just as interested in the diseased and deceased. As her audience expanded so did the collection and soon enough she found herself in a 4,200-square-foot space hosting exhibitions and lectures to the Brooklyn community.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Schvarcz.

“When I started [my collection] I did not intend [it to be] for an audience,” admits Ebenstein. “Now we have a really strong and active community and ever since we opened up the museum I found a lot of people… who don’t want to talk about the weather or what they like to eat [but rather] their own experience of death.”

The onsite Morbid Anatomy library, the book collection that the museum originally grew from, is on permanent display. Additionally, the curators feature seasonal exhibitions like the current Opus Hypnagogia: Sacred Spaces of the Visionary and Vernacular, which examines hypnagogia, or the transitional state between being awake and asleep.

Artwork and illustrations depict creative representations of the “threshold in consciousness” phase. It’s the murky areas of mental awareness yet to be understood by science that allow for lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis to occur.

On view from Oct 23 to Feb 15 will be showcases of Castan’s Panopticum waxworks once shown in Berlin from the late 18th through the early 20th century. Panopticums were quaint, popular European museums that displayed cabinets of anatomical and pathological wax figurines of biological diseases and morbid curiosities.

Visitors who make it to the Morbid Anatomy Museum can walk into the exhibit to stare at a model of a child with diphtheria, an acute, highly contagious bacterial disease, or study montages of human beings with lupus and leprosy.

Ebenstein believes that these exhibitions are not only educational in what occurs to the body in disease and death; the visual experience also ignites a discussion on what matters we find most discomforting.

“I think some people don’t like those feelings and that’s why I think [many members of] society shy away from that discussion,” hypothesizes Ebenstein. She feels that individuals are often apprehensive about connecting with another person on a deep level, or having “an immediate real encounter with another person that’s not bullshit, not small talk.”

Ebenstein has even made it a point to offer lectures and workshops for children in order to help educate and start the conversation on the concept of death at a young age. Ebenstein thinks that the prevailing taboo is largely a societal factor, in part because the US is such a young country.

“We have yet to have a direct relationship with death and be confronted with it in that way,” she states.