Back From The Dead: Morbid Anatomy Finds A New Home In Brooklyn

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GREEN-WOOD CEMETERY – After the closing of Gowanus’ beloved Morbid Anatomy Museum in December 2016, fans of its collection of art, artifacts, books, and ephemera about death, religion, medical history, oddities, and the arcane were at a loss.

“I think the museum really hit a chord with a lot of people. I think it provided a home for people who didn’t feel they had a home before,” said the Founder of Morbid Anatomy, Joanna Ebenstein, on Saturday during the launch of a new collaboration with Green-Wood Cemetery.

Harry Weil, Green-Wood Cemetery ’s Program Manager invited Ebenstein and Morbid Anatomy’s Head Librarian and Programming Director, Laetitia Barbier, to curate a new three-month exhibition at Green-Wood’s landmarked Fort Hamilton Gate House for the Spring. The Cemetery’s Gate House recently reopened to the public for the first time in 50 years.

Entitled The Power of Image: Life, Death, and Rebirth, the exhibition presents items created to examine “the most universal of all human conditions: death,” showcasing rarely seen artwork and objects from The Green-Wood Historic Fund’s collection as well as items from Ebenstein’s own private collection which she’s been amassing for two decades.

“We’ve had a very good relationship with Green-Wood for many years,” Ebenstein explained. “We were producing events [for Green-Wood] for approximately three years and when the museum closed its doors we continued to do events for them…. Eventually, Harry Weil invited us to take over this space.”

“We will be here until the end of June, for the first residency, then we’ll take a break for summer because there’s no air conditioning in this space. Then we’ll open again in autumn,” she adds.

Since the Morbid Anatomy Museum closed, Ebenstein has been busy organizing  events around the world, including collaborations with Manhattan’s Hauser & Wirth Gallery and London’s The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History. For Brooklyn fans, she says “there are some possibilities,” for upcoming projects, “but nothing I can talk about yet.”

“One of my favorite things that we’ve done with Morbid Anatomy is taken groups to Mexico for Day of the Dead. We did that for three years and it was life-changing for everyone who did it, including myself, who’d read a lot about it, but going and actually feeling the vibrancy, warmth, humanity, and positivity—it’s hard to express without experiencing it yourself,” she said.

When asked when she developed her fascination with the morbid, Ebenstein reflects, “I think all children are interested in this, and I just never outgrew it…. I had very supportive parents and when I was a kid my dad, before the age of the internet, found me a taxidermy kit, he found me formaldehyde, so I was one of those science geeks that kind of never grew up.”

Having studied art and intellectual history, which she explains as “looking at primary documents of a period in order to understand the time,” she describes Morbid Anatomy’s programming as “an intellectual history approach to death.”

Noticing that society now views death very differently from how it observed it prior to 1900, Ebenstein wondered, “How had we changed so much that the way people look at death now seemed strange?,” spurring her to collect thousands of books and objects in an effort to “learn more about different traditions around the world and different times and places.”

“Death is going to happen to everybody,” she continued. “Every culture, so far as I can see, had an art, a philosophical and literary tradition of dealing with it, and instead we call it ‘morbid’ to think about it. I think there’s something very morbid about a culture that thinks it’s morbid to talk about something that will inevitably happen.”

Judging by the number of visitors to the Fort Hamilton Gate House on Saturday afternoon, Morbid Anatomy’s return to a new venue in Brooklyn is a welcome one.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Ebenstein said with a smile. “The thing I’m most happy about is that people are taking books off the shelf. This is always what the museum was intended to be. These are books that excite me. I love to see other people enjoying them.”

Morbid Anatomy’s The Power of Image: Life, Death, and Rebirth is on view Saturdays and Sundays from 12pm to 5pm through June 24 (Free)
Green-Wood Cemetery, 5th Avenue and 25th Street (main entrance)
Exhibition on view at the Fort Hamilton Gate House (Fort Hamilton Parkway and Micieli Place)

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