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.
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.
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?
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…
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.
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 Chaplin, Kate 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.
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.