Interview with Joanna Ebenstein from the Morbid Anatomy Museum

Museum Resources
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Museum Resources June 26, 2020 Interview with Joanna Ebenstein from the Morbid Anatomy Museum

By focusing on taboo topics like death and the treatment of the deceased, the Morbid Anatomy Museum is breathing new life into the museum industry.  Sitting down with Joanna Ebenstein, a founder of the Morbid Anatomy Museum, we discussed how she was transforming the way guests interact with a museum – by offering lectures, exhibitions, and even taxidermy lessons – into a positive learning environment, without the sterility of the traditional hands off museum.

MH: What inspired you to start this museum?

JE: I would never have done this by myself. The reason this happened is that I had a very small space in the Proteus Gowanus Gallery. It was a 300 square foot room, and I had books and artifacts that I was making available to the public by appointment one day a week.

Then, I met this pair of identical twins when I was giving a Halloween talk with my friend, Colin Dickey, who ended up being the first executive director here. I talked about this cult figure, this new religion called Santa Muerte. Nobody in the audience cared, but there were these two identical twins sitting straight up, riveted, and they came and talked to me afterwards – they were going to Mexico, and they asked for advice about seeing some Santa Muerte stuff. They came back from Mexico, called me up, and said that they’d like to bring some gifts to the library.

They brought an amazing box of Santa Muerte things. After dropping off their gifts, one of them said in passing on the way out “I always thought there should be a gift shop and cafe in this style,” and I said “there should be, and I can build you a great museum to go with that.” It was just a flip comment.

Of course I loved museums, and I had always fantasized about it, but I’m not the kind of person who does things like that.

MH: We LOVE that you take more of a programming-centric approach to running the Morbid Anatomy Museum. What made you decide to go that route?

JE: Actually, the programming existed way before the museum.

Basically the way things unfolded is I did this exhibition and started a related blog called Morbid Anatomy, and the blog developed a following.

Soon, people began to email me; I had a bibliography on the blog – and said “do you have these books?” I really wanted to share these books, because they’re out of print.

That’s when I moved all my stuff to the 300 square foot room and opened the Morbid Anatomy Library. We were attached to a gallery called Proteus Gowanus, and they did events there. I asked them if I could do an event there. I did, and it was standing room only.

I remember that it was a difficult lecture – the speaker talked about very difficult things, and also a lot of scientific stuff – I looked around, and people were riveted. I turned to my friend James and I said “This is interesting. People are interested in this. We’re not the only ones!” Soon after, another space in that building came up for rent.

Joanna and her friends pooled their resources, rented the space, and started having regular lectures, taxidermy classes, and exhibitions.

MH: I know you have lots of regulars at your events, but you also see lots of new faces. How do you keep the crowd fresh?

JE: In this world of social media, it’s so unclear. Certain things go viral, and I don’t know why.

We’ve been doing flea markets for ages, but this time there was a 2.5 hour line all day – we’ve never experienced anything like that! Certain events will only have around ten people, and I like that. I am very strongly committed to the idea that we should do things that are not always blockbusters and not always hugely entertaining.

It’s always good for us to get different people in here, and I love meeting different kinds of people – that’s how interesting partnerships end up happening, and it’s very cool.

MH: What’s the overarching mission or message of the Morbid Anatomy Museum?

JE: For me, part of how I started to get into this material in general was going to Europe for the first time when I was 16 and starting to see these fine art treatments of death.

Where I grew up in California, death was pretty much a province of metal culture, goth culture, and horror movies.

In Europe, it blew my mind that there’s so much beauty in the treatment of this topic of death. I began at that point to collect all these images and think about why this looks so strange to us now.

If you know that in every other time period, they’ve had other ideas about death, why should we think this one is the right one? Why is it morbid to think about death?  We’re all going to die, and everyone who has ever lived has died, and foreknowledge of our death is possibly the human condition in and of itself, and every other culture that I could find had a dignified discourse and artistic practice exploring those histories.

Part of my soapbox is that I don’t think it’s morbid to think about death, and hopefully when you leave this place, you might question our attitudes.

MH: So, it’s all in the way it’s presented?

JE: It is. There are certain objects that are shown in different contexts – in a museum context, on a fairground, in a private collection – and in each place, they’re different things, in a way.

They have a different meaning, and that’s very interesting to me. I think objects undergo a symbolic death when they enter a museum in order to live forever. It’s this weird paradox, right?  But something is lost there.

Look at birds in a natural history museum, and think “This diorama is telling you about birds of Africa.” But this was a bird with a biography, it was killed by a certain person, and something changes when you don’t talk about that information.

It gets way more complicated when you’re looking at human specimens, at the Mutter Museum, for example. That’s a human with a biography, and it becomes eclipsed; it becomes a word in an essay.

I think there’s something very interesting about the human mind and the flickering edge that happens between abstraction and all these other things. It’s hard for me to put into words, which is why it’s a project.  People will find what they want, but if you give them the credit to find it on their own, that’s how I’d prefer to be treated as a museum visitor.

MH: Why do you think there aren’t more Morbid Anatomy-type museums in the U.S.?

JE: What’s sad to me is that a lot of these things exist in museums, they’re just not shown.

Ultimately, what I’d like to do with this museum is to show stuff that museums aren’t showing. I’ve gone to museums of natural history and seen rooms of objects without data, with no provenance, so they can’t be shown.

That’s my other mission – to rescue these things from obscurity and to say that they are important. Just because they don’t fit our attitudes about ethics, death, or scientific provenance, doesn’t mean we should pretend they don’t exist.

They’re beautiful things that teach you other things. All of these things either give you a really amazing experience or they can teach you things that are not the thing that the museum wants to teach anymore.

Museums have changed so much. Why can’t we have fun in a museum? Why can’t it be fun, interesting, and educational? Why can’t we seduce people into wanting to know things? Hopefully people feel different when they’re here, and I think being able to touch things is such a big part of what people love about this. I love that, and I always want to keep it that way.

Things can get broken, but I would still much rather things get wear and tear and have them be used during their lifetime. There’s a “use” vs. “conservation” spectrum, and I’m very much on the “use” side. That’s been a conversation for a long time, but people are starting to have the conversation in new ways that I didn’t see 10 years ago.

MH: Do you have any advice for people interested in starting a museum?

JE: Make sure you’re super-passionate about it. It’s incredibly rewarding, but incredibly backbreaking.

Thank you to Joanna from the Morbid Anatomy Museum for talking with us and sharing fresh new ideas, and to Kelly Reidy and Justin Rod for helping us create this interview.

Do you work for a museum? Do you have a program that is successfully engaging new audiences? We’d love to hear about it! Send us an email. Click this link If you’d like to read more about our workshops, presentations, and museum consulting work.

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