Anne Strainchamps: Does it seem strange, or even creepy, to live with a daily reminder of your own mortality? Because people used to do it all the time. Victorian homes were full of objects we'd find ghoulish today. Unless you have a taste for the morbid. Joanna Ebenstein is the founder and director of the new Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. It's a space filled with objects that reveal just how much our thinking about death has changed over the years. Steve Paulson stopped by recently and Joanna gave him a tour.
Joanna Ebenstein: I'm interested in object lessons in the past that make us think differently about the present. So, for example, looking at things like the anatomical venus. So, 18th century reclining wax woman, life-sized, dissectable, real human hair, pearls, tiaras; they were made in the 1790s, they're made of beeswax, turpentine, and they have real glass eyes, they have real human hair, and they dissect. If you see by her feet, all of those organs, so you can kind of unpack her, and she's dissected. She was intended to teach the general public about human anatomy in the late 1700s in Italy.
Steve Paulson: And then we have a skull here.
Ebenstein: We have a real human skull. That was a donation from a man whose wife didn't want it in the house anymore. This is true. We get a lot of things that way, which is one of my favorite things.
Paulson: Just for the uninitiated, just sort of looking at this, you have photos, you have glass cases stuffed with things, you have all kinds of odd pictures -- it's kind of an old-time cabinet of curiosity.
Ebenstein: We're definitely inspired here by pre-rational museums, by cabinets of curiosity and museums before they solidified into what we now think of them today.
Paulson: What would you say is the animating idea behind the Morbid Anatomy Museum? Do you have a mission here?
Ebenstein: Our mission is to educate about and exhibit objects that fall between the cracks. So, things that aren't taken seriously by other institutions -- if you have a moment, I can take you to this. This is the temporary exhibition space, and this is called the "Art of Mourning." Here we have a hair art shadow box. Do you see that wreath of flowers there? Look closely. This is all human hair wound very tightly. That photo in the center, as you can tell by the black band around it, is a mourning photograph. So, it's saying that the girls in that picture are dead. Their hair is woven into this wreath that's probably woven with other family member's hair.
Paulson: We should mention that the weaving is elaborate in boughs and...
Ebenstein: Boughs, flowers and butterflies up there; there's all sorts of things. This is a part of history, an important part of the Victorian era that really people don't talk about anymore. What is it? Is it art? It's not really art. Is it folk art? It's kind of folk art but it's not what we think of as folk art.
Paulson: This is a photo of these two girls who have died, with this elaborate wreath made of human hair. What would people have done with this? Why would they have created this?
Ebenstein: They would have hung it on their wall. Almost everything you see in this room was either to be worn on the body or exhibited in the home, and it was to express mourning and loss. Working with hair takes a long time and it's really hard. This was probably over a year's work of somebody. That would be seen as pathological today.
Paulson: What else do we have here?
Ebenstein: Do you see that beautiful broach right there? And that white woven bit, that's human hair as well.
Paulson: That's human hair?
Ebenstein: Yes, that's human hair.
Paulson: It's so fine and tiny.
Ebenstein: And beautifully worked, right? And this is what I learned putting this exhibition together -- sepia was also a process where you would dissolve the hair of the beloved in a liquid of some sort and paint with it. So, that's actually human hair, that brown paint in there. This is a collection by a local collector named Stanley Burns. He's one of the pre-eminent photography collectors in the world, so far as I know. He had been finding all these photos, like this one here, of sleeping children. He's a doctor, and at some point he realized "No, these are not sleeping children. These are dead children."
Paulson: This photo, it does look like a sleeping child but then when you say it's a dead child, oh my God.
Ebenstein: And then you see it, right? You look closer and you see that that's what it is, and that this was actually a very common practice in the 19th century. Again, it looks strange to us. It looks morbid, you might say. But clearly it was not seen that way at the time.
Paulson: What do we have in the cabinet here?
Ebenstein: This is kind of a chilling photograph of a husband and a wife holding what you can tell, when you look, is a dead child. Also a dead child right there.
Paulson: This is photo after photo of parents with their dead children.
Ebenstein: And I will tell you, I went through boxes and boxes of these to select them for the exhibition.
Paulson: The contrast between today and then is so startling. We would never do that today. We would never commemorate the dead -- for one thing, we wouldn't really commemorate death at all.
Ebenstein: I think that's right. Death has gone underground, I think. At this time, even if you wanted to deny death, you could not. Three in five children died before reaching adulthood; people butchered their own animals, generally speaking. Horses were used for carts and they were dead in the street. This idea that death is an exotic other, which I think is how we feel about it now, I think is very new to our time and place. I don't think there's ever been a time in history when it's been that way. In this time, people died in the home. As you can see by these photos, people were having funerals in the parlor, which then becomes the funeral parlor, and the parlor at home becomes the living room. This all becomes outsourced. People start to die in hospitals. The dead aren't seen as much, and I think this is where this big shift comes.
Paulson: Is that part of your mission here, to kind of bring death out from the shadows?
Ebenstein: Yeah, that's been a mission of Morbid Anatomy as a project for awhile, I think. My own history is that I grew up in California, where images of death were pretty much relegated to youth subcultures -- the goths and the heavy metal kids and horror movies and that sort of thing. I went to Europe for the first time when I was 16 and I saw churches in Germany, and I saw the winged death heads, and I saw the jeweled skeletons in churches, and I saw the paintings of martyrs' crucifixions and other ghastly assassinations, and I had never known that beauty and death could go together before. When I saw these images, it really made me ask a lot of questions, and that's kind of inadvertently what led to this project.
Paulson: Obviously you have a fascination with the morbid. Are you kind of a morbid person yourself?
Ebenstein: Do I seem like a morbid person?
Paulson: No, you don't.
Ebenstein: No, I'm not. I would actually argue -- part of the why I use the name "Morbid Anatomy" for my blog is for the longest time I have been called morbid; I thought a lot about that, I accepted it for the longest time, and then I began to think "Well, is it morbid to think about death?" In my opinion, no. In my opinion, it's morbid not to think about death. We're all going to die, we all know we're going to die. To me, it's the most essential problem there is to come to terms with that. So suddenly, we're in a period where it's considered inappropriate to have a serious discussion about death. We're allowed to watch horror movies, we're allowed to listen to heavy metal, but we're not allowed to have serious conversations about it and I think there's something really wrong with that.
Strainchamps: Joanna Ebenstein is the founder and director of the new Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. You can see some of the things she and Steve looked at on our website.