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The Challenges of Showing the Artifacts of an Early European Wax Museum Today

Installation view, 'House of Wax' at the Morbid Anatomy Museum (all photos by Michelle Enemark for Atlas Obscura unless otherwise noted)
Installation view, ‘House of Wax’ at the Morbid Anatomy Museum (all photos by Michelle Enemark for Atlas Obscura unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)

A death mask of Napoleon; life-size pregnant women, body cavities open and displaying the miracle of life; body parts afflicted with symptoms of syphilis and leprosy — these are just a few of the wax wonders currently on view at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum. Titled House of Wax, the unusual exhibit comes from the collection of Ryan Matthew Cohn, star of the TV show Oddities. His selection of anatomical, pathological, and ethnographic wax replicas of mostly medical marvels and abnormalities — never seen before now in the United States — was originally part of Castan’s Panopticum, which existed in Berlin from 1869 to 1922.

A model in 'House of Wax' at the Morbid Anatomy Museum (click to enlarge)
A model in ‘House of Wax’ at the Morbid Anatomy Museum (click to enlarge)

Panoptica were wax museums much like Madame Tussaud’s, but with grisly and educational items that would be more at home in the Mütter Museum today. Flourishing in Europe in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, they were attended in the same way a dime museum or freak show might have been, but presented as educational for the popular audience. The artifacts from Castan’s that Morbid Anatomy is displaying include moulages showing the symptoms of syphilis, tuberculosis, and leprosy; realistic models of babies being born, complete with a wax doctor’s hand inside the body cavity; anatomical models showing the effects of corsetry; and wax figures of people of “exotic” ethnicities — at the time, basically anyone who wasn’t European. There are wax models demonstrating surgical techniques and circumcision; specimens of intersex genitalia; and full-size figures of Luitpold, the Prince Regent of Bavaria, and serial killer Fritz Haarmann, known as the Vampire of Hanover. The collection even includes “Anatomical Venuses”: life-size wax women who are nude, supine, and inviting; their dissectible bodies promise to teach the public about pregnancy and reproduction.

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A model in ‘House of Wax’ at the Morbid Anatomy Museum

“Panoptica were a cultural form targeted at the broad public,” writes Peter McIsaac, an associate professor of German and museum studies, in the text that accompanies the House of Wax exhibit. “In many ways, the sensational, shocking, and sometimes morbid qualities were clear commercial calculation on the part of entrepreneurs whose livelihoods depended on drawing the largest possible paying audience, which in fact came in sizable numbers. Castan’s, in its heyday, could attract as many as 5,000 visitors on a single Sunday.”

A major appeal for the audience of the time was the ethnographic displays — the mostly European visitors, in the days before widely accessible photography and film, didn’t know what people of other cultures looked like. As McIsaac explained in a recent lecture on the topic, Castan’s Panopticum featured a live “human zoo” — with performers such as conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker (the original Siamese twins), exoticized Eastern “harem girls,” and microcephalics exhibited as Aztecs — in addition to the wax ethnographic busts. Some of the latter survive and are on display at Morbid Anatomy, including the “Chinese Nobleman” and a few African examples, some exhibiting stretched earlobes and lip plates, labelled “Bushfrau” or “Hottentotte oder Buschmann.” But today’s audience, rather than being eager to see the “other,” is more likely to feel discomfort when confronting these models — a concern that they’re inappropriate or offensive.

Wax ethnographic busts in the Castan's collection (image courtesy Ryan Matthew Cohn)
Wax ethnographic busts in the Castan’s Panopticum collection (image courtesy Ryan Matthew Cohn)

There is a disclaimer. You see it before you enter the exhibit:

Viewer discretion is advised as some of the artifacts in this show are graphic in nature, including nudity and antiquated approaches to race. We believe that it is our duty as a cultural and educational institution to critically display items that may otherwise be ignored or erased from cultural memory. By better understanding the past, perhaps we can better understand the present.

Joanna Ebenstein, founder and creative director of the Morbid Anatomy Museum, elaborates: “You have to remember, photography wasn’t really common. People didn’t know what other people in the world looked like. We may have racist feelings looking at them today, and it certainly has implications when we know how things worked out. However … I think people are curious about difference. Our desire to look doesn’t change; our appropriate framing for how to look at things changes.”

Of course, one option would have been to edit the enthographic waxes out of the exhibition and display only the anatomical models, which would have been more in keeping with what Morbid Anatomy normally does, anyway. Ebenstein admitted that the idea was discussed internally, but she eventually decided to retain them. “We were nervous putting those pieces up, but I think it’s worse not to show it than to show it. That’s ignoring a part of history that’s important and has impacted how we think of things today, and that’s what we do at Morbid Anatomy. That’s our principle—to take care of and show things that other people won’t show because it’s too difficult, dangerous, or provocative. All of our history isn’t things we’re proud of, but that’s no reason to pretend they didn’t exist.”

Anatomical venuses in 'House of Wax' at the Morbid Anatomy Museum (click to enlarge)
Anatomical Venuses in ‘House of Wax’ at the Morbid Anatomy Museum (click to enlarge)

Dianca London, visitor services associate at Morbid Anatomy, says, “For me, the busts are sobering. They’re a monument of sorts, artifacts reminding us not to dismiss the historical horror of colonization and its still pervasive erasure of nonwhite narratives and histories when it comes to representation in curated spaces.” The nature of London’s job ensures that she sees the people who attend the exhibit and how they react. She’s noticed that the ethnographic models produce a different response in some museumgoers than do the anatomical ones. “Many visitors take pictures of or ask questions about the anatomical Venuses or the syphilitic penises, but Instagram posts or questions about the ethnographic busts tend to be less frequent, except when the visitor is a person of color,” she notes. “For me, that says a lot about the unfortunate apprehension white visitors have when they’re confronted with antiquated depictions of race. It’s disappointing, as a woman of color, to see the way the busts are so often overlooked or greeted with silence by white visitors.”

The House of Wax exhibit represents about half of Cohn’s wax collection from Castan’s, and after it leaves the Morbid Anatomy Museum, it will join the rest to be permanently installed in the soon-to-be-opened Alamo Cinema and Drafthouse in Brooklyn. “When I was offered the collection, I didn’t have the space to house the entirety of the pieces, nor did I have the funds,” Cohn explains. “The CEO of Alamo Drafthouse, Tim League, was one of the people to whom I showed the collection, and he agreed to take it on. Instead of making a profit, I took a part in the business and stepped in as the curator. Had [we] not purchased the collection, it would have been disbanded and sold one by one at auction.”

Installation view, 'House of Wax' at the Morbid Anatomy Museum (click to enlarge)
Installation view, ‘House of Wax’ at the Morbid Anatomy Museum (click to enlarge)

The collection will be displayed it in its own bar, also called House of Wax, which will open along with the Alamo in late summer. Featuring chandeliers, leather banquets, and floor-to-ceiling cabinetry, as well as live entertainment, House of Wax will be located at the entrance to the cinema and open to all members of the public, not just those with movie tickets. “It will still have a museum atmosphere, minus any stuffiness,” Cohn says. “We wanted it to be the only place where you will be able to examine a museum collection at your leisure while being able to have a cocktail. All of the cocktails are named after the pieces in the collection. The beverage manager is a genius in custom-crafting elaborate drinks based on 19th-century ingredients and processes.”

Whether or not the items in the collection seem offensive is more of an issue when they’re removed from the context of an educational institution and put on display in a bar. Cohn has put a lot of thought into this concern. “The ethnographic portion is historically significant. These busts showcase a period of time when artists and scholars were still learning about different cultures,” he says. “To me, it would have been in poor taste to remove the ethnographic pieces and not address them. They will be on view to the public and respected behind glass, with a wealth of historical text to go along with each.”

Installation view, 'House of Wax' at Morbid Anatomy Museum, with model at left showing the effects of corsetry
Installation view, ‘House of Wax’ at Morbid Anatomy Museum, with model at left showing the effects of corsetry

Cohn, who’s working on a book about the collection that will be for sale at House of Wax, is passionate about the exhibition and excited to share it with the public. “I think the fact we were not only able to save this collection, but also keep all of the pieces together is remarkable,” he says. “We take a tremendous amount of pride in this project, and I am doing everything I can to make sure people feel as comfortable and happy with it as we do.”

House of Wax continues at the Morbid Anatomy Museum (424 Third Avenue, Gowanus, Brooklyn) through June 4.

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