Artist and collector Joanna Ebenstein transformed her lifelong fascination with death into her very own Morbid Anatomy Museum, a 4,200-square-foot Brooklyn warehouse showcasing ghoulish curiosities ranging from a stuffed two-headed duckling and a pickled possum to postmortem photography. We asked her how like-minded enthusiasts could make their own lemonade out of life’s most unusual lemons.
All kids are interested in dead things, but there’s a moment when you’re not supposed to be anymore—especially if you’re a girl. I never had that moment. I always wanted my own natural history museum. As a little kid, my dad would put sea urchins in formaldehyde for me. I loved animals. I’d nurse baby birds back to health. But when they died, I didn’t see any conflict in preserving them.
In 2006, I was a freelancer doing graphic design, and I was reading this amazing book called Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, by Stephen Asma. I was at this job thinking, “If I could do anything, what would I do?” Well, I’d go to some of these amazing medical museums and I’d start taking photographs. Then I thought, “I can do that!” So I went to England and France and began collecting photographs. Later that year, one of my clients sent me to a conference where I met a medical museum curator. She said, “We should do a show of your work!” I got a small fellowship as part of that, around $1,000, and I thought, “You know what? I really want to make this show so much better.” So I went to Europe for a month to do more research. When I got back, I had tens of thousands of photographs.
I had so much stuff that I didn’t even know how to sort it. I started this blog called Morbid Anatomy. It never occurred to me, not once, that anybody else would be interested, but within a few days it had a following. I moved my collection into a cheap studio space at Proteus Gowanus Gallery, an arts incubator. I’m lucky I rented it, because they supported whatever I wanted to do. When I told them I was going to move all my Morbid Anatomy stuff in, they said, “Why don’t you make it open to the public?” So we began a lecture series, and I started getting invited to professional medical museum conferences.
I know this is supposed to be a success story about me, but it’s not. The reason I’m successful is that I work with great people and I’m good at seizing opportunities. I could not have done our book, Morbid Anatomy Anthology, without author Colin Dickey. He helped us raise $46,338 when we intended to raise $8,000.
As for the museum? In 2009, I gave a little talk. No one cared except for two people, Tonya and Tracy Hurley, identical twins who were hanging on every word. That’s how it started. Tracy was just one of those people who get things done. She put in a bunch of money; they brought a lot of stuff to donate. We did the Kickstarter and raised $76,013. The public perception of what we’re doing is so successful, but financially we’re still rocky.
I haven’t actively done any research for a little over a year now. My day-to-day work involves designing membership cards, writing weekly mailers, looking over event listings before they go live, corresponding with contributors to the anthology, working on our next exhibition—which is magic—trying to plan the publication to go with that, and working with our development director. We’re a skeleton staff.
At the opening of the museum, I took in the toast, looking around at all the people there, all of our community members who made this possible, and I realized that was what this is about. It’s these really wonderful, quirky people who don’t necessarily have an institution that serves their needs. The Metropolitan Museum is amazing: It produces an experience for the masses. But there are also people whose interests are very niche. They may feel like outcasts. They need a place, too.