Below is a lovely eulogy to the now sadly defunct Morbid Anatomy Museum by good friend, scholar in residence, collaborator, co-curator, partner in crime and board member Evan Michelson. It really captures the essence of what we were, from someone who was there from our inception as a tiny space at the no longer extant Proteus Gowanus to our grand Museum on the corner. The Museum could never have happened without her. RIP MAM!
The Morbid Anatomy Museum was a modest place. It was thrown together in a matter of months, on a shoestring budget, in a flurry of generous, well-meaning chaos. It all started with a spark between people who love ideas, and people who wanted to make those ideas manifest. From the little library in Proteus Gowanus to the big black box on the corner of Third Avenue, The Morbid Anatomy Museum was both inevitable and ephemeral.
The Museum rode the crest of a cultural wave - we were a part of the ascendence of weirdness, and the mainstream embrace of the culture of curiosity. Morbid Anatomy was a community that gathered regularly to celebrate those strange, liminal ideas that led to the unexpected places where death, beauty, science and spirit meet. We were a museum with a tiny permanent collection - our space was always meant to highlight the collections and obsessions of others. Artists, academics, rogue intellectuals, writers, thinkers, doers, collectors; all were welcome. Wanderers, fetishists, makers and itinerate thinkers (many impeccably dressed) found a home there as well. Plots were hatched, connections were made, classes were taught, lessons were learned. Most importantly, inspiration was generated and passed on from one synapse to another; we kept the collective mind humming. It was incredibly exciting to be a part of all that, and to watch it all unfold.
We were a somewhat ramshackle cultural institution. Our furniture was borrowed and snapped up as it was needed. We had a tiny staff who worked wonders and volunteers who kept us together. Aside from the lovely bare bones of the space (conceived of by architects generous with their time) the Museum was cobbled together by whatever means we had at our disposal at that moment. Morbid Anatomy was neither designed nor “envisioned." Our black box was not pre-planned, market-tested or audience-approved. There was no tasteful lighting, no wallpaper or carpeting. There was not a speck of luxury. The lecture space was a basement with a low ceiling where the rain sometimes crept in between the steel doors. It was cramped, and it overheated easily. It was anything but comfortable. But we gathered there for years, trudging through every kind of weather to hear what each other had to say. We stuffed animals in that room. We had flea markets and watched films. We had festivals, short lectures, mini concerts, readings and demonstrations. In that dark little basement we lighted each other’s way.
The Museum proper was one room and a tiny hallway. Our community filled it with strange and wonderful taxidermied beasts, antique anatomical waxes and Victorian hairwork. Rare books, magical contraptions, memorial objects, old photographs, ethnographic wonders and displays of unexpected and arcane objects - we made a place for them all. Curious items came, were admired, then made their way back to private places. The real beauty in that room happened when someone fell in love with something. The looks of wonder, delight, bafflement and surprise were themselves a wonder to behold. You could see the gears turning, you could watch ideas being generated and connections being made. It was exciting, it was an honor and a privilege to be a part of that, to help reveal what was formerly hidden.
And what people came! The famous, the celebrated, the relentlessly dedicated, the intrepid, the curious: everyone brought something to the table. People came from all over the world to our little museum because they’d heard that wonders resided there. Some were disappointed, it’s true, at the small scale of the place. Some were taken aback by how roug-hewn we were. The Morbid Anatomy Museum was neither slick nor cosmopolitan. That was never a part of the plan: we had the feel of a regional museum, presenting and protecting the legacy of obscure obsessives everywhere. Most visitors, however, came away with something they hadn’t expected: a newly-found appreciation for the decorative possibilities of human hair, or the perverse splendor of a kittens’ wedding. Most people got it.
Museums are places of inspiration - they are arks containing objects, ideas and cultures. Even the most humble roadside museum is a place of love, obsession and a desire to share and protect. The Morbid Anatomy Museum sought to preserve and nurture those objects, people and ideas that fell through the cracks of other museum collections. We sought to nurture something liminal and elusive. We curated the collective unconscious. It made for a tough tagline, it was difficult to define, it wasn’t pithy or easily-understood, but that was our mission and we stuck to it. In the end that was probably part of our undoing, but we succeeded in so many ways, and beyond all reason.
Ultimately, the Morbid Anatomy Museum was a community, international in scope. It was everyone who came through our doors, everyone who took classes, attended lectures and visited exhibitions. It was everyone who traveled with us overseas as well. It was everyone who generously gave of their time and expertise, who shared something invaluable, scarce and unfamiliar. It was a combined energy and passion, a love of the arcane and all the things that flutter around the edges. It was a love for and fascination with an unspoken and elusive commonality, tied up in strange objects and brilliant insights. Morbid Anatomy was all of us, together, endlessly fascinated.