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Friday, 9 September 2016

Taxidermy at the Morbid Anatomy Museum

Here at the Ministry we are all about London – but on the occasions that we do get to travel, we obviously have to report back about our museum adventures. On a recent trip to New York we finally had the opportunity to visit the place we like to think of as our spiritual home in the US- the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. We arrived, unannounced, on the eve of the opening of the Museum’s new exhibition Taxidermy: Art, Science and Immortality, featuring the famous Kitten Wedding tableau by English taxidermist Walter Potter. Despite the spontaneous nature of our visit, Creative Director Joanna Ebenstein took some time out to speak to us about the exhibition and the work of the museum.


As we walked in the door it was immediately apparent we had not come at a good time. With the exhibition opening shortly, install was not quite finished yet, and an impending courier arrival was the focus of the staff. Possibly because she is one of the most generous and kind people working in the field, Joanna decided to take some time out to take us through our first visit to the museum and even into the as yet unopened exhibition space. With the museum all to ourselves, Joanna told us more about the exhibition, the Library and some of the ins-and-outs of running a small museum.


The dream for the Museum had arisen from the original Morbid Anatomy Library- a resource centre created by Joanna using her own books and object collection which she has amassed through her own research and curatorial work. She explained how, unlike us lucky sods in London with our Wellcome Collection, our Science Museum, our Hunterian, there wasn’t any space in New York to have academic discussions about art, death, science and beauty. The Library still forms the heart of the Morbid Anatomy Museum – an inviting space on the second floor where people can come to read, chat and explore through Ebenstein’s ever growing collection. Unlike a traditional museum, you can actually handle any of the items on open display in the library room – from votive candles to bottles, artificial teeth and medical x-rays. The space had been transformed in honour of the exhibition to have a special natural history twist.


The star of the show however is of course the exhibition space, consisting of two hall-ways and a large central display area which showcases the Taxidermy exhibition. The display seeks to delve deeper into the many different aspects of taxidermy - the strange, the funny, the scientific, the familiar and the uncomfortable. Although the art of taxidermy can trace its origins to the ancient Egyptians, it wasn't until the nineteenth century when the practice came into its own. Wide spread interest in the natural world, and arguable the connection between the amateur scientist and the wealthy elite, prompted a craze for taxidermy so it became ubiquitous with the English, and indeed American, middle class home. In the world of ever expanding knowledge which characterised the Victorian era, this method of preservation was ideal for bringing home to the West specimens of exotic animals never before seen by the majority of the population. But taxidermy could also be funny (such as the anthropomorphic spanking frog, or a bear who served as a tray bearer), strange (from the world of carnivals and freak shows), exotic (the wall-mounted specimens of fierce predators from Africa, Asia and beyond), or very close to home (as in the display of a beloved pet). Today taxidermy continues to fascinate and repulse us (see Crap Taxidermy) and has become the subject of a renewed collecting interest. 



As we chatted, the staff waited patiently for the Kitten Wedding to arrive. It’s custom case prepared, it was a countdown to the courier’s arrival. While we have generally worked in larger museums and all the protocols that entails, the Morbid Anatomy Museum works largely with private collectors. Although it might lead to slightly harrowing moments when things don’t go according to plan, working closely with the private sphere allows Ebenstein and her collaborators to access untapped resources typically hidden away in the homes of their owners. The lion’s share of this exhibition had come from just such a collector, J.D. Powe, who also curated the display and wrote much of the text. The unique interests of people like Powe and others is what allow Morbid Anatomy to display things like a large collection of stuffed domestic dogs- a focus probably too niche for any museum.



While we weren’t able to see the Kitten Wedding in person, Taxidermy stands alone as a strong exhibition. Of course, the story of Kitten Wedding and Walter Potter, particularly his amateur but loving attempts at the art of taxidermy, fits perfectly with the exhibitions themes. However, from anthropomorphic frogs to elephant’s feat, sawfish tusks, conjoined calves, and even an anteater there is plenty to see. Potter, while perhaps particularly appealing to the average visitor due to his cache as an English folk artist, might be a draw, to overlook the collection of fascinating objects surrounding Kitten Wedding would be to miss the heart of Taxidermy. It is a show about the multifarious ways in which we are fascinated and repulsed by death, and the clever art of preserving life indefinitely. From the show’s earliest examples in the early nineteenth century through to the present day, taxidermy has proved to be an enduring interest for specialist and laypeople alike. If we really had to pick a favourite piece, it would be the Victorian taxidermy bird fireplace guard. Recalling a time when taxidermy birds were a must for any fashionable home, this extraordinary piece mimics the elaborate natural styles of the period in actual preserved animals. Displayed together with a fireplace for effect, we are reminded that taxidermy was once a part of everyday life.



In the end, Kitten Wedding arrived and the exhibition opened seamlessly to glowing reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere. Needless to say, if you do find yourself in the New York area a trip to Morbid Anatomy now (and in the future!) is a must. But as we poked through the gift shop and sat at the large communal table, we were reminded that the Morbid Anatomy Museum is much more than just the exhibition space. It’s a hub which provides a home for anyone interested in the strange and unusual – a conversation starter and a study space. While London has plenty to offer, we think the world needs a few more places like Morbid Anatomy. 

If you can't get to New York to see the show, the Museum has helpfully provided a Youtube tour for all their virtual visitors. Check it out!

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