The story of Morbid Anatomy

10 June 2014

During Twitter’s #MuseumWeek we were unofficially twinned with the evocative Morbid Anatomy. A sort of spiritual half-sister of ours, it specialises in certain themes abundantly explored at Wellcome Collection and Library. Joanna Ebenstein, its founder, tells us about how and why Morbid Anatomy was formed and its journey from blog to library to event series to museum.

 The "Venerina" or "Little Venus" anatomical model by Clemente Susini, 1782, as seen at the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna, Italy. Photo by Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy.

The “Little Venus” anatomical model by Clemente Susini, 1782, as seen at the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna, Italy. Photo by Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy.

Morbid Anatomy is a project which explores – via words and images, art and scholarship, in both the virtual and physical world – the overlaps between art and medicine, death and culture. It began as a blog in 2007, a satellite to an exhibition I was working on about the art and culture of medical museums. In order to collect material for this exhibition, I had gone on a one-month “pilgrimage” to great medical museums of Europe and the United States. When I returned from this trip, I found myself overwhelmed by the volume of material I had collected. Thousands of photographs, scores of links to online exhibitions and museum websites, piles of books and scholarly articles… The Morbid Anatomy blog was born from an impetus to organise this material for use in my own work.

 "Anatomical Venuses," Wax Models with human hair in rosewood and Venetian glass cases,The Josephinum, Workshop of Clemente Susini of Florence circa 1780s, Vienna, Austria. Photo by Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy

“Anatomical Venuses” Wax Models with human hair , The Josephinum, Workshop of Clemente Susini of Florence circa 1780s, Vienna, Austria. Photo by Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy

I drew the name “Morbid Anatomy” from the medical term for the study of diseased organs and tissues, but to me, the phrase also operated as a kind of medical double entendre with which I wished to problematise ideas of what constituted the morbid. Why, I wanted to ask, was it deemed morbid to be interested in death? If death is the greatest mystery of human life; if everyone who ever has lived has died or will die, and so will I; how, then, could being interested in death be seen as pathological?

 Head of Saint Vittoria, crafted of wax, hair and what looks like human teeth, church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, Italy. Photo by Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy

Head of Saint Vittoria, crafted of wax, hair and what looks like human teeth, church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, Italy. Photo by Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy

With a background in intellectual and art history, I had long been intrigued by the ways in which other cultures and eras approached and envisioned death: Incorruptible saints in Catholic churches, post-mortem photography, the cult figure of Santa Muerte, phantasmagoria, ossuaries, memento mori-themed fetal skeleton tableaux such as those of Frederik Ruysch, the Anatomical Venuses of Clemente Susini

 Tableau with Three Foetal Skeletons, from Frederik Ruysch, Opera omnia..., Amsterdam: Janssonius Waesbergen, 1721-1727. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine Library.

Tableau with Three Foetal Skeletons, from Frederik Ruysch, Opera omnia, Amsterdam: Janssonius Waesbergen, 1721-1727. Courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine Library.

Clearly death was not always considered an inappropriate subject for art and contemplation, and clearly ideas of death and beauty had not always been in conflict. How, I wanted to understand, had death become strange to us? How could looking at the past teach us something about the cultural relativity of our own views? These are the questions I have been investigating via Morbid Anatomy since its inception.

 Fetal Skeleton Tableau, 17th Century, University Backroom, Paris. Photo by Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy

Foetal Skeleton Tableau, 17th Century, University Backroom, Paris. Photo by Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy

Since starting this project seven years ago, Morbid Anatomy’s audience and scope has grown in ways I could never have predicted. The project has now expanded to include the open-to-the-public Morbid Anatomy Library; The “Morbid Anatomy Presents” series of lectures and workshops in London and Brooklyn; the self-published Morbid Anatomy Anthology with essays by The Wellcome’s own Dr. Simon ChaplinKate Forde and Ross MacFarlane; and, our newest addition, The Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York.

A brand new three-story exhibition, library, education and event space committed to showcasing and championing artefacts, art, and ideas which fall between the cracks of our disciplinary divides, high and low culture, art and medicine, death and beauty. The Morbid Anatomy Museum takes as its inspiration quirky collections like The Wellcome and The Pitt Rivers, as well as pre-modern museums and cabinets of curiosity with their promiscuous intermingling of art and science, affect and didacticism, spectacle and edification.

The Morbid Anatomy Museum will officially open on Saturday, June 28th with our inaugural exhibition “The Art of Mourning,” on view through December 2014.

 Santa Muerte Shrine, Mexico City. Photo by Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy

Santa Muerte Shrine, Mexico City. Photo by Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy

 The Morbid Anatomy Library. Photo by Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy

The Morbid Anatomy Library. Photo by Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy

 Rendering of the Morbid Anatomy Museum by Architects Robert Kirkbride and Anthony Cohn

Rendering of the Morbid Anatomy Museum by Architects Robert Kirkbride and Anthony Cohn

You can visit the Morbid Anatomy blog here; find a full list of Morbid Anatomy events and workshops here, get on our mailing list here; and find out more about the museum here.

Joanna Ebenstein is a New York based multidisciplinary artist and independent scholar. She is the creative director of The MorbidAnatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York and founder of the Morbid Anatomy blog, Library and event series. She also acted as curatorial consultant for the Wellcome Collection’s 2009 exhibition Exquisite Bodies.