Cabinets Of Curiosity: ‘House Of Wax’ At The Morbid Anatomy Museum

Cabinets Of Curiosity: ‘House Of Wax’ At The Morbid Anatomy Museum
House of Wax at the Morbid Anatomy Museum
From the House of Wax exhibition at the Morbid Anatomy Museum. (Photo by Daniel Schvarcz)

The Morbid Anatomy Museum ( 424 3rd Avenue at 7th Street) celebrated its first anniversary earlier the summer, and the exhibits, events, lectures, and classes continue to fascinate. And the museum’s schedule is absolutely packed.

Just a few of the events this month include the history of sword swallowing, grey fox head taxidermy class, and the defining cinematic expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with a live music score.

While exhibitions and subjects explored at the museum are indeed morbid, the experience at the museum is invigorating. Death, disease, and disturbing history are treated with an extreme sophistication and scholarship. And at times, the material can be irreverent.

Morbid Anatomy Museum
White squirrels take a ride in the Morbid Anatomy Museum’s cafe. (Photo by Donny Levti / Park Slope Stoop)

On Friday, October 23, the museum offers its newest exhibition, entitled House of Wax: Anatomical, Pathological, and Ethnographic Waxworks from Castan’s Panopticum, Berlin, 1869-1922.

“We are always looking for new ways we might present exciting kinds of exhibitions,” says Joanna Ebenstein, Creative Director of the museum. “Each experience we present provides an opportunity to be educational, deeply pleasurable — and shocking, in a way.”

And one of the most exciting elements of any of the Ebenstein’s assemblages is that it continues to ask the question: “what is a museum for?” Nothing is taken for granted in the display of work here.

House of Wax at the Morbid Anatomy Museum
From the House of Wax exhibition at the Morbid Anatomy Museum. (Photo by Daniel Schvarcz)

House of Wax will focus on both the anatomical and pathological (as in the nature of a physical or mental disease) display of waxworks. The exhibition is the waxwork section of what is called a panopticon. It has never been shown in the US.

Panopticons were popular in Europe from the 18th through the early 20th century. They are similar to what in the U.S. have been referred to as “dime museums.”

Perhaps most well-known was the American Museum in New York run by P.T. Barnum and Charles Willson Peale. The museum existed in the mid-19th century, displaying a combination or circus, theater, and “freakshow” under the auspices of moralistic education.

House of Wax at the Morbid Anatomy Museum
From the House of Wax exhibition at the Morbid Anatomy Museum. (Photo by Daniel Schvarcz)

House of Wax will cover human specimens, death masks of celebrities and murderers, Anatomical Venuses (recumbent female waxes), among other items.

Dr. Peter M. McIsaac of the University of Michigan is considered an expert in the field. “In the anatomical cabinets, they would display wax models alongside human organs in glass jars and other specimens that would enhance the believability of what was on display,” explains McIsaac. “They might also use charts or illustrations that could add context to the waxes.”

House of Wax at the Morbid Anatomy Museum
From the House of Wax exhibition at the Morbid Anatomy Museum. (Photo by Daniel Schvarcz)

Ebenstein explains that the panopticons were “museums as popular for the masses. They were both educational and entertaining. They sit on the flickery, amorphous edge between spectacle and education.”

One of the more interesting parts of the exhibit is the experience of how we will view this work that comes from a different historical and sociological context. Ebenstein sees that as an important part of the experience. “By learning about the past, it helps me to understand why things are the way they are now,” she says. “I want people to question what they take for granted.”

House of Wax at the Morbid Anatomy Museum
From the House of Wax exhibition at the Morbid Anatomy Museum. (Photo by Daniel Schvarcz)

House of Wax will continue to be on view in Brooklyn once the museum exhibition closed. It will later be installed at the forthcoming Alamo Drafthouse in Downtown Brooklyn.

House of Wax: Anatomical, Pathological, and Ethnographic Waxworks from Castan’s Panopticum, Berlin, 1869-1922 will be showing at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 3rd Avenue at 7th Street. The exhibition begins Friday, October 23, 2015 and runs through Sunday, February 14, 2016. Admission to the exhibition and library is $5. Seniors and students are $3, and children 12 and under are free. The opening night party is Friday, October 23. Tickets range between $30-$50. Tickets for the party are available here.

A note from the museum concerning the exhibit: Viewer discretion is advised as some of the artifacts in this show are graphic in nature, including nudity and antiquated approaches to race. We believe that it is our duty as a cultural and educational institution to critically display items that may otherwise be ignored or erased from cultural memory.

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