The Transom’s path to Proteus Gowanus, where we were headed to investigate an unusual holiday fair, took us straight over the canal. The sight of the mint-green water—looking even more ominous than usual on a rainy Sunday—inspired a case of rabbit-run-over-your-grave shivers, which turned out to be precisely the right state of mind for a first encounter with the Morbid Anatomy Library. Part art exhibit, part research library “surveying the interstices of art and medicine, death and culture,” Morbid Anatomy is also a privately held cabinet of wonders, open (by appointment, usually) to the curious public.
We stepped into a tiny room in a converted box factory on Union Street and found the place filled to the brim with offbeat objects: anatomical models and shells, taxidermy creatures and religious tchotchkes, dolls and daguerreotypes. Old medical cabinets had been repurposed as display cases. The whole room was bathed in the warm light of old-fashioned lamps, rather than the standard-issue fluorescent bulbs that illuminated the rest of the building.
Against one wall was a towering bookshelf with sections like “corporeality/gender and medicine” and, more to the point, “death.” A skeleton lay in a handsome glass case along another wall. (A red-headed toddler with his mother surveyed the remains and noted calmly, “In our hand we have lots of bones.”) Sitting on a table in the middle of the room was a stuffed chick in a bell jar, wearing a jaunty little hat. Between the taxidermy and the overall aura of mystery, it was a bit like stumbling into a little patch of the eccentric Chelsea theater experience Sleep No More. Tim Burton would have fallen in love.
Proprietress Joanna Ebenstein has occupied the space for five years. For the last four, she’s also overseen an adjoining space dubbed the Observatory, where she and six other artists host events and exhibitions. This weekend, it hosted a macabre holiday fair.
“We know so many interesting artists, artisans and collectors, and we thought to create an alternative fair for the kind of things that we would like to buy,” Ms. Ebenstein told the Transom. In person, with her oval eyeglasses and cute blonde bob, she looks like nothing so much as a fresh-faced grad student taking a break from the stacks for a bit of human contact.
Scattered around the room were six vendors, including Ms. Ebenstein, with her glossy prints of Enlightenment-era anatomical models.
Looking around, we saw vintage postcards, animal skulls and earrings decorated with the face of Edgar Allen Poe.
A table was covered in patches you’d use to decorate a messenger bag. One of these was covered in a long scrawl of Latin, including what looked like “Lycanthrope,” with little bits of fur peeking out. The man behind the table told the Transom his work (under the name Mark Splatter) tends to revolve around “anatomy, and the occult.” He has an Etsy store but doesn’t stock it much, as he prefers to sell at markets.
“I like dealing with people,” he explained.
At another table, we found several small taxidermy birds. Noticing our interest in a creature priced at $110, the vendor admitted she’d be willing to take $80. The antlers of white-tailed bucks were going for $20.
As for the name, Mr. Ebenstein explained that “morbid anatomy” is a term drawn from medicine, meaning pathology. “I wanted to pick something that was kind of a double entendre,” she explained. “But also, I’ve been called morbid my entire life for being into this stuff, and I actually don’t think it’s morbid to talk about or look at images of death.
“I think it’s really morbid that we’re not supposed to talk about it.”