The Morbid Anatomy Museum stands out among its drab neighbors on a commercial strip in Gowanus, Brooklyn. A three-story, matte-black curio cabinet for the strange and wonderful, the space is a 19th-century factory turned nightclub turned serious archive, scholarly salon, and community space for those intrigued by the history of science and medicine.
Appropriately for a 21st-century institution, the museum started as a blog in 2007 before assuming a physical form. Joanna Ebenstein, now the museum’s creative director, responded to the blog’s popularity by showing her collection of postmortem photographs and gothic artifacts in person, first in a Gowanus gallery. Her success prompted her to search for a permanent space.
Though some of the objects in the Morbid Anatomy Museum (in the lobby, stuffed chipmunks ride on a miniature Ferris Wheel) are, at first, pure kitsch, each demonstrate the way knowledge about the body is constructed in the past and present. Robert Kirkbride, associate professor of architecture and product design at The New School’s Parsons School of Design, partnered with architect Anthony Cohn to design the museum. The project timeline and budget were tight. Ebenstien approached Kirkbride in December 2013, the plan was in contract by January, and the museum officially opened June 2014. It cost $350,000 to transform the 4,200-square-foot space.
The design is influenced by Kirkbride’s research on the 15th-century Italian studioli—rooms created to train the memory. Designed to induce awe, these richly fabricated and precisely curated studioli attracted learned individuals curious about natural science, history, and geography. It was in these spaces, Kirkbride notes, that “prototypes for classification of knowledge, virtuosity, and propaganda” were created. It was up to the viewer to make meaning from what he or she saw.
Consequently, the design responds (both to a limited budget and) to history, drawing out the building’s story to create a layered space for display and study. Obsolete coal chutes and staircases that dead end into the wall are fashioned into mourning shrines. Kirkbride opened the facade on the ground floor with ceiling high custom-steel windows. The windows maximize the building’s corner lot to brighten the open plan cafe, gift shop, and lecture space.
Programming that keeps archaic arts alive is core to the museum’s mission. When AN visited, 12 aspiring taxidermists were dissecting rabbits in the basement. The windowless space is configured so light from ground story filters through an open stairwell.
The building’s previous stint as a nightclub left an overabundance of HVAC systems, tracks for lighting, and electrical outlets. Some excess was removed, while others were converted into light fixtures. Salvaged doors, chandeliers, and cabinets add to the eclecticism.
Exhibits follow a similar aesthetic. One second floor gallery hosts exhibitions, while the other houses the permanent collection of 19th-century medical instruments, rare books, pickled specimens, skulls, and divination tools. Unlike most museums, there is no wall text. It’s possible, though not explicitly encouraged, to reach into open glass cases to touch jars of preserved insects, or pull books from the shelves to read. Kirkbride explained, that, like in the studioli, the idea is to “come in [and] pause on items that catch your attention.” In a museum designed for the sublime (and the totally weird), that’s an easy task.