Voices of the Modern Museum: Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy Museum

By Kylie Sharkey

The Morbid Anatomy Museum (Morbid Anatomy) is committed to, “exploring the intersections of death, beauty, and that which falls between the cracks.” The museum’s quirky mission statement is as unique as its path to existence. “I never intended to start a museum,” founder Joanna Ebenstein frankly admits, “that was never my goal”. But what started as a blog based art project centered on the exquisitely macabre grew first into a library, and then a book, and finally into a 4200 square foot Brooklyn museum.

Ebenstein’s exhibition catalogues boast oddities ranging from a “mummified seven-legged, two bodied piglet” to a “pre-1800 wax memento mori figurine depicting a decaying corpse crawling with vermin.” While Ebenstein notes that these artifacts are “definitely niche,” they have nonetheless found an extensive and engaged audience. Enthusiastic visitors have spurred the founder to offer frequent classes on subjects such as Victorian hair art, taxidermy, and the drawing of human anatomy. Morbid Anatomy has even hosted trips around the world, the most popular being an excursion to Mexico to witness The Day of the Dead.

Morbid Anatomy faced, and faces, the inevitable task of any modern museum: “We [at the museum] have to explain what we do and why we do it”. Ebenstein admits that Morbid Anatomy’s distinct focus makes it, “a really different kind of beast”. But if her museum is a beast it is a beautiful one, as evidenced by her poetic description of the role museums play, “They offer a place outside of time and space where people can enter a different state.” For Ebenstein this transformative power takes on a religious air, “I see people searching for meaning, finding meaning, in the museum.”

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