This article is part of The Legacy Project: explorations into creating legacy projects for end of life, funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship Award.
The Morbid Anatomy Museum, in Brooklyn, New York, is a unique space which describes itself as “a non-profit institution dedicated to the celebration and exhibition of artifacts, histories and ideas which fall between the cracks of high and low culture, death and beauty, and disciplinary divides.” I wanted to visit the museum as part of The Legacy Project in order to research traditions of memorialising the dead from a historical and cultural perspective. I also wanted to visit as I am fascinated by the concept behind the Morbid Anatomy Museum. Originally a blog by founder Joanna Ebstein, an art historian, in order to make sense of a research project she undertook, the museum is now much more than one building in Brooklyn.
The greater Morbid Anatomy Project combines the knowledge and interests of academics, artists, curators, writers, historians, funeral directors and morticians to make up a wider ‘society’ who write books, hold talks and curate exhibitions worldwide. As individuals and as a collective, the people involved are exploring, researching and creating projects which enhance and challenge our understanding of what it is to be mortal, and shining a light on how society deals with death on a cultural, spiritual, practical and emotional level.
As research for my own Legacy Project I hope to discover more about the ‘death positive’ movement which has become more prominent in recent years - through people such as Joanna Ebstein and the Morbid Anatomy Project and movements such as The Order of the Good Death; a collective aiming to encourage people to consider their own deaths which mainly comprises of morticians and people in the funeral industry. There is an aesthetic element to these movements and others like them, as a consciousness around the aesthetics of death has been reawoken. This interests me as an illustrator as well as a nurse, as the aesthetics of medicine and death are largely ignored in the wider medical society where function is favoured over design. This ‘intersection’ of art, history, science and medicine is very much a focus within my own magazine as I try to make sense of my two worlds of medicine and illustration.
At the museum I was allowed to browse through their extensive library and photograph some of the artifacts on display in their research room. Each item tells a story and can be placed within a historical and cultural context of traditions around death and the human body. I am interested in the concept of ‘memento mori’ which translates from Latin literally as ‘remember you will die’, and many different cultures and belief systems have their own version of memento mori. One of the most recognised versions is the Mexican holiday of the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, when dead family members are honoured and the living are in turn reminded of their own mortality. A familiar icon of Day of the Dead is La Calavera Catalina, or 'the dapper skeleton' who is immortalised wearing many different outfits, including a wedding dress, and who is often paired with a male skeleton in a suit.
I also found a Victorian hair wreath which weaves intricate flowers from the locks of a deceased loved one, or a number of different family members who have died.
Click on the images below to see into the cabinets of the Morbid Anatomy Museum for more examples of memento mori.
Visiting the museum and reading the Morbid Anatomy Museum anthology gave me an insight into the history of traditions and rituals around death. It is clear that there has always been a need to memorialise the dead in one form or another, whether it be through hair wreaths, photographs, alters, shrines or funeral parades like those in New Orleans. We now have more tools available to create legacies and remember our dead whilst also acknowledging our own mortality. This is where my journey continues.
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