The story of Morbid Anatomy

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.

Object of the month: canopic jars

Limestone, jackal headed canopic jar, Egyptian. Wellcome Images

Limestone, jackal-headed canopic jar, Egyptian. Wellcome Images

What could a jackal-headed jar of organs have to do with a Spartan sailor? William Birnie lifts the lid on how ancient Egyptians preserved the life force of the dead.

Housed in our End of Life display in the Medicine Man gallery are two very beautiful jars, made from limestone, so simple, elegant and beautifully sculpted that they could be mere decorative objects. Their lids reveal their true purpose, as ancient Egyptian canopic jars, and they played a major role in the process and rituals of mummification.

Ancient Egyptian funerary customs were complex, elaborate, and crucial in allowing the deceased to travel through the Underworld, ensuring a smooth transition from earthly existence to immortality. Mummification could last up to 70 days and was designed to preserve, protect, and establish the body as a life-like presence for the afterlife. The process was intricate and rituals took precedence. Initially the body would be dried, cleaned and rubbed with good smelling oils. Embalmers would place amulets, designed to defend the body, between the layers of linen which wrapped it. Priests dressed as Anubis (the Egyptian god associated with the afterlife and mummification) would read spells aloud to ward off evil spirits, while every layer of bandage was painted with a liquid resin in order to glue and strengthen the whole. Once a body had been wrapped, complete with a picture of the god Osiris painted on to its surface, it would be arranged in the tomb; afterlife paraphernalia, to ensure preparation, would also be entrusted including clothing, valuable objects, furniture, food, and drink.

The ancient Egyptians believed each person to be made up of a variety of physical and non-physical elements, which included Ib (heart), Sheut (shadow), Ren (name), Ba (soul) and Ka (life force). Mummification was intended to provide a place to house these parts. The Ka was a life force sustained by the food and drink left at the tomb by living relatives; depictions of food offerings on a tomb wall could also foster this nourishing function. The Ba could leave the body, enabling the dead to participate in the worlds of the living and the dead. Attention was paid to the appearance of the mummy itself so that the Ba would recognise its own body and return safely. A full and happy afterlife could only be enjoyed if the different parts survived.

Canopic jars contained the large human organs or viscera (liver, lungs, stomach, and intestine). Each of Horus’ sons were assigned a different organ to protect, represented in the forms of a hawk, an ape, a man and a jackal, thus allowing us to identify which organs are stored in each jar. Fascinatingly, the jars themselves are also represented in a mummified fashion, all having the same wrapped body. The jars in our collection have lids depicting the human and jackal; Imsety (liver) and Duamutef (stomach), respectively.

The viscera were wrapped individually in linen and once placed inside the jar had resinous consecrated oil poured over them. The jars were then ritually closed and conserved for eternity inside the tomb. They could be placed at the corners of a sarcophagus or in a false wall in its base. Sometimes they were stored together in a canopic chest or box. These boxes started out simply enough but soon became more elaborate. The brain, regarded as unimportant, was pulled out of the skull using a hook inserted through one nostril, then thrown away. The heart was left in place, as it was considered to be the organ that held the spirit, along with the understanding and the senses of an individual. It would be needed on the Day of Judgement in the Underworld, when the God Anubis would weigh it to ensure the worthiness of the deceased to enter the underworld.

Fourth Dynasty Queen Hetepheres is believed to be the first royal Egyptian to have had her organs dried out and preserved. After the Eighteenth Dynasty (c.1550–1292 BC) canopic jar lids were no longer adorned with the face of the deceased. Instead, they were identified with the four different gods who were the sons of Horus. Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, was portrayed with the head of a hawk and the body of a man. He was God of the sky and in one version of his myth, during the battle for control of Egypt, Horus had his left eye gouged out by the god Set. For the ancient Egyptians, Horus’ left eye represented the moon and explained why the moon was so much weaker, dimmer than the sun. Horus retaliated by castrating Set, hence the infertility of the desert. It was understood that his four sons, emerging out of a water lily that rose from the waters of Nun, were given funerary duties by Anubis.

Why are these jars – which can be made from limestone, pottery or gilded wood – called canopic jars? The ancient Egyptians themselves did not refer to them in such a manner, calling them Qebu en wet (jars of embalming). Rather, it was modern Egyptologists that named them canopic. The British Museum states they were  mistakenly linked to Greek mythology as Canopus, the captain of the fleet of ships of Menelaus, King of Sparta, was buried in Egypt after the fall of Troy and worshipped in the form of human-headed jar. Early Egyptologists noticed a connection between this object and the visceral jars in the tombs, hence the name.

During the first millennium BC when the viscera began to be returned to the body due to improved embalming techniques, the practice of storing the viscera in canopic jars gradually declined with dummy unhollow canopic jars placed in the tomb instead. For a short period during the Twenty-First Dynasty  (c. 1069–945 BC), amulets in the form of the four sons were placed alongside the viscera inside the body. Throughout their history, canopic jars were limited to the upper social strata and with cheaper  and more accessible mummification methods during the Ptolemaic period (305–30 BC), there was simply no need for them any longer, with the last royal canopic jar belonging to Apries (reign 589 BC–570 BC).

William Birnie is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection. You can contact him at

Contemporary votive illustrations: Epic Bubble

To accompany our current exhibition ‘Infinitas Gracias: Mexican miracle paintings‘, we’ve been working with professional illustrators to produce contemporary votive illustrations based on stories submitted by visitors to Wellcome Collection and to our website. Just as Mexican ex-voto paintings were made by painters to tell stories of thanks, we want to hear contemporary stories of gratitude and explore the process of exchange between storyteller and illustrator.

Melanie Winning: Epic Bubble

Melanie Winning: Epic Bubble

Melanie Winning’s latest illustration is for this story submitted at Wellcome Collection:

I would like to give thanks for the beauty and poignancy of my lover who died in my arms while we made love. He was young and fit and healthy. It was a rather new love so remains in a perfect trouble free bubble. He died of a massive heart attack, so I did not know he had died so much as…well…I thought he was just blissed out and happy and resting…having a tantric moment. The gratitude is not for his dying. That has taken me years to get over. The gratitude is for the grace with which he passed and the beauty of this experience for me. There was a huge blessing in being chosen to midwife this powerful passing… and for it to be without any constriction or pain. I will never be afraid of death and this experience, in many very real ways, gave me my life back in a much more vibrant and whole and real way.

Katheryn Trenshaw, Devon, 3am Good Friday 2004. For Nigel and my son for his great patience for me at this time.

You can find out more about Melanie Winning’s work and explore more votive illustrations on the Wellcome Collection website.

Could your gratitude inspire a votive? Tell us your story, and it could form the basis for an illustration.

A good death

Jean's bed

Jean's bed

Next week, Joanna Walsh’s Ars Moriendi opens at Wellcome Collection. A large-scale drawing in the Collection lobby, it will deal with the process of dying in a medicalised culture, and what our hopes for a ‘good death’ are. Here, Joanna explains how she came to deal with the subject of death and discusses the Sobell Hospice, a place where residents are allowed to create an art of their own dying.

It started when the woman living next door to me, who is in her 90s, became bedridden. She is cared for at home by her widowed son. Her bedroom shares a wall with mine and I can hear her: sometimes she watches the telly, sometimes she talks to herself, sometimes she is in pain.

She is having what most people consider to be a ‘good’ death: in her own home surrounded by her family, something many people are not lucky enough to experience. Her dying presence has necessarily become part of my life.

I began to wonder about how we expect to die in our highly medicalised culture where our choices may be constrained by hospital treatments, and whether this ties up with what we would hope for. In a culture where death is taboo and art about dying is scarce or considered morbid, there are few continuing visual traditions surrounding ‘a good death’. I investigated art from the past in the Wellcome Collection’s library and was impressed with the delicacy and beauty of the object created in response to such a dark and difficult subject.

Sobell House Hospice and its patients kindly allowed me to draw them during January and February 2011. Although it cares for patients who need more medical attention than would be possible in their own homes, Sobell allows patients, their families and friends to create their own environments, altering them as much or as little as they desire and circumstances allow. It also encourages facing dying through creativity in the form of music, art or religious contemplation. At Sobell, patients are allowed to create their own Ars Moriendi – their personal art of dying.

Music Therapy

Music Therapy

Never having been in one before, I felt pretty nervous the first time I visited the hospice and I had two meetings with staff and managers before I started to draw.

One of them told me, “You’ll get a lot of different reactions. Some of the patients will ask you why you’re here, whether a relative of yours has died, whether your parents are both still alive. Some of them will ask you whether you believe in God. Some of them will tell you to fuck off.”

I said that I really couldn’t blame them.

I started drawing in the day room – a gentle introduction to the hospice – where in-patients mix with day patients, talking, drinking tea and working on projects with an art therapist. It’s pretty free and easy. One regular was served an 11am pint of bitter and another brought his dog. After a while I noticed there was something about the banter between patients that was almost flirtatious, a little afterwards realising that this could be because so many of the older patients were probably, and sadly, recently single.

Art Therapy

Art Therapy

I spent one of my mornings in the dayroom watching a cookery class. It’s so much like any other cookery club you’d hardly credit the hospice setting until patients start comparing their experience of chemotherapy between deciding whether the icing should be chocolate or vanilla.

This easy conversation, mixing hospital stories with recipes, dogcare advice and remeniscences, is one of the great things about Sobell. The patients know that everyone is in a similar boat and no topics are off-limits.



The hospice building is circular, built around a courtyard and surrounded by a paved and planted city garden. Both the public and patients’ areas are designed to maximize light and each resident’s ground-floor room has access to the outdoors. Furniture is natural wood or nature-identical laminate. Pale floral patterns dominate the curtains and cushions. Outside it’s January but inside the thermostat is set to constant Spring.

The day room

The day room

You can follow Joanna’s work on her blog, Badaude.