Joanna Ebenstein was in Lily Dale, New York, a spiritualist community fifty miles south of Buffalo, spending the weekend “tipping” tables and communing with the dead via mediums when she received word of the disaster. Back home on the banks of the Gowanus in Brooklyn, a small fire had broken out in the art space directly above Ms. Ebenstein’s, activating the building sprinkler system. The resulting deluge drowned a large portion of Ms. Ebenstein’s voluminous collection of books, memorabilia, and special objects, which she calls the Morbid Anatomy Library.
A few days later, Ms. Ebenstein — who is also the founder of “The Observatory,” an arts and events space where she hosts a series of readings, lectures, and performances “inspired by the 18th century notion of ‘rational amusement’” that “resides at the interstices of art and science, history and curiosity, magic and nature” — was surveying the damage to the Morbid Anatomy collection. Calamities had occurred, Ms. Ebenstein said, pointing to the stack of water-warped volumes spread out on the floor amid a number of rotating fans. Ruined favorites included Heteroptera, Cornelia Hesse-Honegger’s collection of precisely rendered watercolors recording the malformations of flora and fauna found in the vicinity of Chernobyl, as well as a twenty-five foot long fold-out running history of the 6000-year-old world according to the Christian Bible purchased by Ms. Ebenstein at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Also wrecked were a number of 19th century medical encyclopedias, a couple Diane Arbus books, and The Devil in Design, a compilation of postcards depicting various manifestations of Krampus, the horned, hairy Santa helper said to make Christmas Eve visits to Eastern European children who have been more naughty than nice.
“This kind of event can really be upsetting to a collector, since they’re not just books and objects to me. Each one has a certain significance, a personal connection,” said the 40-year-old Ms. Ebenstein, who, in 2007, chose to call her library Morbid Anatomy because it suited her basic inquiry, which she bluntly refers to as “death, and related topics.” Death is a deeply underserved scholarly discipline, says Ms. Ebenstein, who found herself inordinately fascinated by “the other side” both as a young girl growing up in northern California, and later while studying in the Intellectual History department at UC Santa Cruz. “Everyone dies, but if you talk about it, you’re supposed to be morbid. I’ve never thought of myself as morbid,” cheerfully reports Ms. Ebenstein, who has divided her library (which is open to the public) into sections such as “the uncanny,” “medical history,” “freaks and monsters,” “death in art,” “death in culture,” and “waxworks,” the latter representing the librarian’s ongoing fascination in “preservation of the formerly living.”
Yet all was far from lost at the Morbid Anatomy Library. Much had escaped unscathed, including a stack of early dental catalogs and the Library’s collection of Victorian-era “gentleman’s erotica,” which chronicles “the interplay between respectability and smut.” Best of all was the survival of the eight-foot-long oak and glass forties-era Macy’s display case currently serving as a see-through coffin for Morbid Anatomy’s resident human skeleton. Ms. Ebenstein carried the skeleton bones in a canvas sack back to Brooklyn on the F train, reassembling them at the Library. Michael Baden, one-time head of the NYC Medical Examiner’s Office, IDed the skeleton as a male, likely of Indian origin, says Ms. Ebenstein, who allows that she “eyeballed” the recreation and is pretty sure she put the skeleton’s legs on backwards.
So life, and death, will go on at the Morbid Anatomy Library. It might even get better ,since Ms. Ebenstein listed all the books ruined in the flood on her website and almost immediately began receiving replacements in the mail. Just today, a copy of The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, a collection of visual imagery of early spiritualist experiments, came via parcel post. Noting that the flood occurred on Easter Sunday, Ms. Ebenstein (who this coming week will be curating the Coney Island Congress of Curious People) suggested that all the donations might lead to “a resurrection” of the Morbid Anatomy Library. This fit the theme, since to be resurrected, you have to be dead first.