Monday 3 November 2014

Art Review: The Art of Mourning, The Morbid Anatomy Museum, Brooklyn, New York

To round off the Halloween weekend, I paid a visit to one of New York’s spookiest spots and lesser-known museums – a building stocked with taxidermied animals, human skulls and dead things in jars – the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn.

While the museum houses objects from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, its current exhibition (running until January 2015) is centred on the ‘art’ of mourning and is, subsequently, quite nineteenth century in focus. As any lover of Victorian literature will know from the many, many deathbed scenes to be encountered in the period’s novels, high infant mortality, famous mourners (e.g. Queen Victoria herself) and an obsession with sickness, led to something of a cult surrounding death and remembrance. The objects this exhibition celebrates were the physical manifestations of this and originated in both America and Europe in the period.

L'Inconnue de la Seine
The exhibition is small but varied. There are portraits, painted post-mortem (see my discussion of a fictional example of one of these in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh here). Many of these are of children and infants, made more cherubic by being painted surrounded by clouds, although their faces all bear the hallmarks of death. There are many photographs of corpses – sometimes in coffins, sometimes in bed and often posed alongside living family members. And there are the mourning clothes – veils and bonnets – which point to the formalised strictures and social conventions surrounding mourning at the time.

But there are many items stranger than this… Here too are death masks, including an example of one of the most famous, L’Inconnue de la Seine – a mask taken from an unknown woman with a mysterious smile who drowned herself in the Seine in the 1880s. There is a lot of hair work – with the deceased’s hair being braided into rosaries and intricate decorations or incorporated into mourning scenes displayed in shadow boxes.

What seems so strange to modern viewers looking at all of this is that these items are very much made for display. Now, death is hidden away, sanitised and dealt with away from the home. The exhibition curators make an interesting point when they reference how the growth in popularity of professional funeral parlours meant the removal of death from the family parlour, and even the renaming of the room as a living room.

The Secret Victorianist visits the Morbid Anatomy Museum
Importantly though, despite how strange some of these mourning rituals might seem today, this isn’t a freak show. It’s a bit like looking like an old graveyard – beautiful, curious, with an occasional tinge of sadness. If you’re in the area, I’d definitely recommend visiting the exhibition, but not as a replacement for a haunted house. The museum is a quiet place to walk around and is also home to a library where visitors were reflectively leafing through books on medical history and anatomical art. One of them was wearing a top hat and, somehow, he seemed the most at home.

Do you know of any other nineteenth-century attractions in New York the Secret Victorianist should visit? If you do, then let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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