A Night At the Morbid Anatomy Museum

July 10, 2014 | Amy K. Nelson

Joanna Ebenstein is petite, soft-spoken and bookish. She’s also a woman who traffics in death.

“I don’t actually think it’s morbid at all to think about death,” she says. “I think it’s really weird not to.”

ANIMAL recently visited Ebenstein’s Morbid Anatomy museum, which she founded and curates in Gowanus section of Brooklyn. Ebenstein, 42, has turned what was once a hobby and a blog into a fully operating museum that welcomes the dark, the strange, and the sensational.

“I think everything we’re doing is going to offend some people,” she says. “I don’t know how people in the midwest would view us. I don’t know if they’d come in here and see the babies in coffins and say this is [satanic].”

Since the museum opened on June 28, it’s gotten a healthy dose of media coverage. We stopped by this week to see the museum host its third singles’ night — billed as “Morbid Curiosity” — a gathering of 30-plus people in search of connecting with like-minded souls. Another reporter from a blog was also shadowing the event. Yet the night of Hendricks Gin-sponsored mingling was unremarkable in its normalcy, save the taxidermied animals, games of disease Pictionary and ice breakers that began with, “My friend is a mortician in San Francisco…”

Ebenstein’s dream is to pattern the museum after circus ingenue P.T. Barnum, who once housed an eight-story edifice in New York City that included freak shows, performance art and live animals — channeling an era of vaudeville and the World Fair. For now, though, Ebenstein’s building it small.

“I don’t ever want it to be a slick, fancy art museum,” she says. “I wanted to provide New York with something I wish had existed which was more homespun and immediate and accessible to more people.”

Moulage masks, and other “death masks,” litter the upstairs library. Masks like the one pictured above are patterned off diseased body parts and molded into wax recreations, used primarily as educational tools.

“I’m really interested in these ostensibly scientific objects that are at the same time art objects,” Ebenstein says.

Ebenstein walks me over to a bookshelf in the library, and opens Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, a best-selling, 18th-century annual guidebook that detailed the names and specialties of different prostitutes. There were 250,000 copies made, distributed at Christmas time.

Ebenstein reads an excerpt, “This lady is about 30 not a very advantageous stature but her fine eyes cannot be looked upon without exciting all the thrilling emotions and desire of the soul.”

When asked where she’d draw the line, Ebenstein says she has no interest in abortion exhibits, and says while lynching photography is an important historical medium, she doesn’t think she could live with it each day for six months.

She has limits.

“I wouldn’t show dead babies in jars, no.”

But she does have a pig fetus, and other skeletal remains from bats and birds to stingrays.

A big function of the business is the events and lectures hosted by Morbid Anatomy. Ebenstein got the idea for a singles’ night when Daisy Tainton lamented about having to explain to a potential partner why she was picking up a dead kitten at a friends’ house.

“That was pretty much a conversation stopper,” Tainton recalls.

Ebenstein suggested Tainton and the museum host a meetup for singles at the museum. On the very first singles’ night, Tainton met someone who she is currently dating. With a liquor license on the horizon, events like these are all part of the museum’s growth plan. Each one brings in more people, a particular kind of people.

“We’re trying to showcase things no one else takes seriously,” Ebenstein says. “Maybe they seem macabre and they end up sitting in back rooms or private collections, but we want to give them a home and a voice.”

(Photos: Amy K. Nelson/ANIMALNewYork)