Morbid Anatomy Library

Visit a Gowanus collector's studio that's chock-full of antique curios and trash-picked treasures.

  • A tiny snake is preserved in a jar of deep-yellow fluid. "The dark color means the formaldehyde is dirty and needs to be changed," laughs Ebenstein.

  • This 1950s Swedish-modern chair is a hand-me-down from Ebenstein's grandfather, a former town doctor who treated patients in exchange for buckets of wheat and chickens.

  • An antique-market discovery, this TruByte Mould Guide showcases false teeth of different sizes and shapes. It's like a dessert tray for dentures: Pick your favorite model, and in your mouth it goes.

  • Ebenstein arranges items like a dried bug, a plastic model of the organ system and a lump of dead moss together, replicating the ragtag style of Renaissance-era cabinets of curiosities.

  • Proof that not everything in Ebenstein's studio is an abnormal curiosity: Her moss-green curtains are from Ikea's Red Hook outpost.

  • Ebenstein snagged this book, a giant historical timeline of the earth's history from a Christian perspective, at the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

  • Ebenstein's medical cabinets hold a stereographic card of an itchy-looking scalp condition and a twisted doll, which was a gift from an antiques-dealer ex.

  • Ebenstein's not sure exactly how many books she owns or how much they're worth. "I've never really gotten around to insuring this stuff," she says.

  • Ebenstein reads a book about Philadelphia's Mtter Museum, which holds plenty of its own medical oddities and curios.

  • Ebenstein found this "Victorian taxidermied hummingbird under an old, imperfect glass dome" at Obscura (280 E 10th St between First Ave and Ave A; 212-505-9251,, an East Village antiques store. It's one of her favorite

  • Her book collection includes titles like Michael Sappol's A Traffic of Dead Bodies and Frank Gonzalez-Crussi's Suspended Animation: Six Essays on the Preservation of Body Parts.

  • The anatomical map behind Ebenstein's work station is a 1918 illustration of the circulatory and nervous systems. The chart is more than five feet tall and can be rolled up like a shade.

A tiny snake is preserved in a jar of deep-yellow fluid. "The dark color means the formaldehyde is dirty and needs to be changed," laughs Ebenstein.

Photographs by Eric Harvey Brown

Joanna Ebenstein’s overflowing Morbid Anatomy Library, housed in a Gowanus studio, is a mishmash of taxidermied animals, medical artifacts and creepy gewgaws. The 37-year-old graphic designer has been fascinated with the bizarre all her life (her father gave her a taxidermy kit when she was a teenager) and has collected curios since she was young. She opened the space to the public in October 2008 (e-mail first to book an appointment), after her collection threatened to overtake the apartment she shared with her boyfriend. Ebenstein considers the library both work and play, and would run it as a full-time museum if money weren’t a concern. “It’s like a fantasy job I created for myself that, sadly, doesn’t pay,” she says. Many of the items were found in trash piles: Her favorite, a dentist’s cabinet, was abandoned in Cobble Hill. “There were human teeth and a little bottle of mercury [in it],” she recalls. “Even weirder were the photographs of the dentist’s secretary.” Friends have donated pieces, and she often finds treasures at antique and thrift stores. “Once, a man ringing up my item in an antique mall asked, 'What kind of creep buys this stuff?’” Ebenstein says. “I replied, 'But you’re the one selling it!’ I think he was being sassy.”

Interested in starting your own collection of oddities? Follow Ebenstein’s suggestions:

1 Be prepared to scour. “Look everywhere, even the most unsuspecting of places. Don’t be afraid to look at cast-off items!”

2 Don’t listen to the “normals.” She says, “Do what feels natural—no matter what everyone else thinks is weird.”

3 Confront your mortality. “Contemplating death helps you make better decisions,” she explains. “I’m afraid of flying, but it influences how I live my life. If I didn’t think about these things, I’d probably be stuck in a crappy job that I hated.”

4 And don’t forget to make use of her resources. “Please do visit for open hours! I bought all of these expensive books and have arcane media that isn’t readily available elsewhere!”

Ebenstein shares her top spots for curio-hunting:

P.S. 321 Flea Market (Seventh Ave between 1st and 2nd Sts, Park Slope, Brooklyn): “I go every week. My boyfriend just bargained down a robin’s-egg-blue cabinet from the 1940s for $250.”

Obscura (280 E 10th St between First Ave and Ave A; 212-505-9251, “I think of Obscura as Morbid Anatomy’s gift shop. They offers 'housewares for the haunted home,’ and sell mourning clothes, wax mannequin heads from the 1920s and Masonic stuff.”

Cog & Pearl (190 Fifth Ave at Sackett St, Park Slope, Brooklyn; 718-623-8200, “Well-curated books and beautiful jewelry inspired by science. I got a bag of colorful hand soap in the creepy shape of children’s hands.”

Local garage sales and giveaway tables: “I recommend anyone walk around their neighborhood with a bag.”

ARE YOU CURIOUS? Morbid Anatomy Library, 543 Union St at Nevins St, Gowanus, Brooklyn; e-mail to schedule a free visit.


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