How the Morbid Anatomy Museum is Rebranding Death

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Last weekend, hundreds of people waited in a two-and-a-half hour line down a Gowanus block to get into the latest Morbid Anatomy Museum Flea Market. They were desperate to stock up on things like insect shadowboxes, mourning rings, “hair art,” taxidermy, cat skulls, and human teeth. How did they survive without all this stuff just a year ago?

Since opening in Gowanus last July, the Morbid Anatomy Museum has evolved into one of Brooklyn’s weirdest and most exciting cultural institutions. Cultish museum-goers crowd exhibits like The Art of Mourning and Christmas parties celebrating Krampus (who is, for the uninitiated, the horned anti-Santa beast of German folklore). Tickets for lectures like “Psychedelics and Death: A Brief Introduction” sold out in minutes, as if they were tickets to pop concerts, not to watch academics talk about obscure drug research. And the museum’s first anniversary party, the all-day Festival of Arcane Knowledge and ensuing Devil’s Masquerade, on Saturday, July 18th, is also selling out fast.

Founder and Creative Director Joanna Ebenstein suggests that Morbid Anatomy’s popularity stems from something much deeper than mere trendy appeal (although Chloe Sevigny did host their 2015 Gala). “I think there’s a moment going on right now where people are really interested in death,” Ebenstein says. “It’s the greatest mystery of human existence. Why do we live in a culture in which it seems inappropriate to talk about, unless it’s in horror movies or something?” 

The Morbid Anatomy Museum offers something that was previously missing in Brooklyn: a non-traditional outlet for people to talk about death and other subjects usually considered taboo. In view of the museum’s upcoming first anniversary, we caught up with Ebenstein about her childhood introduction to taxidermy, “rebranding death,” how being mildly morbid can make for a better life, and highlights of the past year.

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By all accounts, the Morbid Anatomy Museum has had a very successful first year. Why do you think it’s become so popular?

Joanna Ebenstein: There are a lot of people in this community who feel alienated by a lot of other people. They feel they can’t speak about things that interest them, so the museum creates a space for them. And there’s this moment right now where people are really interested in death. It’s not the only thing the museum is about, but in our culture, there’s no real place for polite, sophisticated discourse about the greatest mystery of human life –the fact that we’ll die. I think that’s part of why it’s been so successful.

How did your fascination with the “intersections of death and beauty” begin?

When I was little, I was really into this stuff, and I just never outgrew it. And I think all little kids are into this stuff, but especially if you’re a girl, you start to get the message that it’s creepy and gross. I was lucky to have parents who cultivated my being different. When I was young, what I really wanted to be was a veterinarian. I loved animals. If I found a baby bird on the road, I’d nurse it back to health or call the ASPCA. I went around on my own accord and had people sign an ASPCA petition to save the baby seals. I was this super geeky nature-loving girl. When I was eight, my dad started giving me formaldehyde when I found animals that had died, like a baby bird, and I’d keep it in my room. I wanted to have my own natural history museum. When I was high school, I picked up roadkill a lot, like a lot of our audience, it turns out. My dad got me a taxidermy kit, and I taught myself how to skin birds. Until I moved to New York, I had never met anyone who was interested in what I liked. I was always just a freak my whole life.

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What was your goal in starting the museum? 

Calling the museum Morbid Anatomy was part of a way of reclaiming this word “morbid.” My whole life, I’d been called morbid for not turning my head away from death. I’d accept that–yeah, I guess I’m morbid–but I wasn’t morbid. Death is a great mystery that happens to each of us. Every human culture and art tradition has made some sophisticated attempt to grapple with death. Why do we live in a culture in which it seems inappropriate to talk about, unless it’s in horror movies or something like that?

The person who helped me articulate these ideas about death was my grandmother, who was a special beloved family member. When she was in her 90s, her husband died, and she would call me her father confessor, and tell me she was ready to die. She didn’t feel she could tell that to anyone but me. I just remember thinking that although made me really sad, that it also made me feel there was something really screwed up a culture where you couldn’t talk about the most important thing you could possibly talk about. It’s one of the the most meaningful things that going on in someone’s life, and she didn’t think she could talk about that. I think there’s something really wrong with that.

One thing that’s been a really interesting part of the Morbid Anatomy experiment is seeing how it’s become a place where people come to talk about death. Not just in the lectures–if I’m sitting in the library, I end up having these intense conversations with people, whether it’s about their father’s death, or about being diagnosed with cancer. What strikes me about these conversations, since I’ve had many of them now, is that they cut through the bullshit of daily life. Suddenly, you’re having a real exchange with another human being. And I feel like there’s this discomfort in our culture with having that kind of exchange, that that intense emotion is part of the reason we shy away from it. And I think that’s a lot of what we provide entry to.

The museum’s approach to death and various forms of spirituality isn’t off-putting in the way that the approach of traditional religious institutions might be to a certain type of person, or even in the way certain new age-y centers or philosophies might be, since those often come packaged in a kind of wholesome-seeming bubble wrap. Was that intentional?

I always found it really off-putting the way death had been kind of claimed by subcultures when I was growing up. In California, it was always cheesy goth stuff or cheesy heavy metal stuff or cheesy horror movie stuff. When I was a teenager, it was kind of a turning point for me when I went to Europe for first time and went to all these churches in Germany. There were all these incredible reliefs of skulls and jeweled skeletons under the altar. It blew my mind. I didn’t know beauty and death could go together. That’s been my search ever since. This idea we have in our culture that beauty and death are incompatible is so new.

That’s a lot of what I’m trying to do–death needed to be rebranded. It’s beautiful and elegant and thought-provoking and cool. Often, when people interview me, they’re like, you seem so happy! You’re blonde! How are you into this stuff? But my whole thing about death is, if you think about it, you have a better life.

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Who is the average Morbid Anatomy Museum-goer?

It’s a wider audience than you’d think. There’s obviously a group of what stereotypers would imagine–you know, subculture-y kids, gothy kids, with tattoos, things like that — and that’s certainly a part of our audience, but it’s really all sorts of people. There are nursery school groups; people from Oregon. There are a lot of artists and a lot of what I call “rogue scholars”–autodidacts, people into learning and education on their own terms. They’re people who are really interested in the world around them, but not necessarily interested in going to school.

What’s surprised you most in this past year?

A big June article in the New York Times was a highlight and a huge surprise. Our latest flea market, on Sunday, had a wait of two and a half hours all the way down the block. We’ve also gotten some of my heroes to speak here–like Harold Schechter, a scholar whose area of expertise is serial killers. He has a really sophisticated, educated take on it, and he’s been giving talks on here. But the biggest surprise is that we’re still here after a year.

The Festival of Arcane Knowledge happens Saturday, July 18 at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus, 11 am to 7:30 pm. It will be followed by the Devil’s Masquerade from 8 pm to late.

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