10:57 am Jul. 6, 2012
On Good Friday of this year, an artwork made from antique (pre-safety) matches suddenly burst into flames inside the Museum of Matches in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
The smoke triggered the sprinkler system, and the resulting deluge poured through the floor, destroying an array of rare books, artifacts and anatomical curiosa in the space below, known as the Morbid Anatomy Library.
The library’s owner, Joanna Ebenstein, was, at the time, in Lily Dale, a spiritualist enclave upstate populated by mediums that commune with the dead. Luckily, a burlesque troupe was performing next door to the Library that night, and they rescued a bulk of the collection, including dental catalogs and a valuable compendium of Victorian-era Gentlemen’s erotica. When Ebenstein posted news of the damages on her popular blog, checks and replacement items began flooding in from all corners of the globe.
It wasn’t enough to cover the losses, however. So last weekend, Ebenstein—who is 40, blonde, and upbeat despite her preoccupation with death—hosted a gala and silent auction to fund the resurrection of the library’s collection. To show their support, a coterie of scholars, writers and one self-described “failed dandy” delivered 5-minute lectures on obscure objects like glass udders and a lampshade made out of (allegedly) human skin. As might be expected, many of the 200-plus guests arrived in Victorian-style dress and eccentric headwear (yachting caps, a bowler hat with taxidermied crow pinned to it, a headband studded with teeth).
To fans of the Morbid Anatomy Library, Ebenstein, who does graphic design for an academic publisher on the side, is a kind of rock star. She travels the world giving lectures and photographing arcane museum collections. At the moment, she is curating a show for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta based on the life of Ignaz Semmelweiss, the Hungarian doctor who invented Germ Theory. She is also collaborating on a book proposal about the history of the human corpse as a fetish object, and working with Penguin Books to develop a series of young-adult novels based on her precocious younger self.
Actual rock stars have taken note. When Chris Muller, an artist and exhibit designer in Brooklyn, met Ebenstein for the first time, he explained, “Lou Reed told me to get the fuck down here.”
The motivating force behind Morbid Anatomy—as well as The Observatory, the event space next door where Ebenstein hosts lectures, readings and performances—is that Americans have lost touch with death.
“I’ve always been interested in death, and people have always called me morbid,” said Ebenstein, who kept a kind of miniature Natural History Museum in her childhood bedroom, stocked with dead mice and rabbits and other curiosities. “But at a certain point, I began to think: Is it morbid to think about death, or is it weird not to?”
She added: “One of the things I try to do with the blog and the library is to show, through the historical record of it, that we are the only culture that has hidden death so completely from view.”
Ebenstein founded Morbid Anatomy in 2007, and she lists among her influences The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, and the book Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. The idea of an unscripted cabinet of curiosities, where it’s unclear what exactly is expected of you, appealed to her.
And it has appealed to others. Classes at The Observatory, on subjects like Anthropomorphic Mouse Taxidermy, typically sell out. Ebenstein has no trouble recruiting a busload of people to visit the Yale Medical Library’s newly opened Cushing Brain Collection.
Such people were in evidence at Saturday night’s gala, which raised enough money that Ebenstein said she will make it an annual event. Evan Michelson, the co-owner of Obscura Antiques and Oddities in the East Village, gave a short lecture on her “whale bulla”—the super-sensitive, shell-shaped inner-ear bone of sperm whales. Ryan Matthew Cohn (pictured at right), a silversmith who said he once sold a stuffed albino beaver to Michelson for $100, displayed a painstakingly wrought “Beauchene skull,” in which all the cranial bones (those that fuse in early childhood) have been separated and articulated.
Mark Jacobson (pictured below), a writer for New York Magazine, brought along the “human-skin lampshade” featured in his recent book The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans. The lampshade was allegedly a Nazi souvenir from the remains of a Holocaust victim. Yet a recent round of DNA testing, Jacobson said, suggested that it is in fact the skin of a cow.
“The original DNA lab contends that it’s still human skin, so now I don’t know what it is,” Jacobson said, adding that National Geographic has made a TV documentary about the saga. He stared at the obscenely tasseled object for a moment, and then placed it back in its Styrofoam box.
Over the course of the night, several guests recommended I speak with Allen Crawford, another big fan of the library, who writes under the pseudonym “Lord Whimsy.” One of his illustrated books, The Affected Provincial's Companion, Volume One has been optioned by Johnny Depp. Ryan Matthews compared him to the Most Interesting Man in the World, from the Dos Equis commercials.
Speaking of the unusual appearance of the guests, Crawford said: “These are people seeking out the unusual among the mundane, so it follows that they’d become unusual objects among the mundane themselves.”
His personal style—white pants, button down shirt, cotton Brooks Brother blazer—was reserved by comparison.
“There was a time when I wore plaid suits with purple lining,” he explained. “But now I just want to be a middle-aged guys who looks like he’s got his shit together.”
Photos of the Morbid Anatomy Library event taken by Skyler Fox.
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