Sunday 7 February 2016

Review: House of Wax: Anatomical, Pathological, And Ethnographic Waxworks from Castan’s Panopticum, Berlin, 1869-1922, Morbid Anatomy Museum, Brooklyn

This weekend the Secret Victorianist returned to one of the first museums I visited on moving to New York—the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn.

Last time I visited, the exhibition space was given over to the trappings of Victorian mourning—hair work, death masks and post-mortem portraits. But the current exhibition features works that were once part of Castan’s Panopticum—a collection of waxworks and curiosities, which remained a crowd pleaser in Berlin for half a century and has some parallels with London’s Madame Tussauds.

The exhibition
This isn’t one fore the squeamish. Expect disease-ridden genitalia, syphilitic skin, models of dissected foetuses, and cross sections of complex births (complete with disembodied physicians’ hands).

There are also ‘ethnographic’ busts, delineating racial differences between groups such as African ‘bushmen’ and Chinese noblemen, which bring you face to face with nineteenth-century scientists’ now uncomfortable views on race.

Ethnographic busts
A full size model of serial killer Fritz Haarmann, the ‘Butcher of Hanover’ (1879-1925), looms over you if you choose to walk to the restrooms, only a metre away from the death masks of figures as varied as Napoleon, Henrik Ibsen and Kaiser Wilhem I.

The exhibits that were of particular interest to me included two models depicting the effects of tight corsetry on internal organs (a topic I wrote about a couple of years ago on this blog) and a couple of examples of intersex genitalia (something I haven’t previously seen many Victorian references to).

The effects of tight corsetry
It was also fascinating to read about the often moralistic way in which the exhibits were arranged—e.g. attractive female nudes sat side-by-side with examples of the ugly effects of sexually transmitted diseases.

Both men and women attended panoptica, but they were sometimes segregated by gender for the more explicit rooms. I spent much of my visit imagining what it must have been like for groups of women, with little biological knowledge and a strong sense of modesty, to be left alone for their allocated time, examining a cankerous penis or a uterus in the third trimester.

A C-section
Put in modern terms, panoptica (like Castan’s or Barnum’s in New York City) must have been a mash up of a biology text book, obstetrician’s office, natural history museum, sensational crime documentary and touristy house of horrors, with a large dose of racism spooned out throughout. And attending a retrospective exhibition on one now adds another layer of interpretative complexity.

If you’re in Brooklyn and have an interest in the kind of popular exhibitions that entertained generations, or just want to see the visceral side of the nineteenth-century view of the body, then check out House of Wax before it closes on April 3.

Death mask of Henrik Ibsen
Do you know of any other NYC exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist would enjoy? Let me know! Here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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