Here at HistoryBuff, we're well acquainted with folks who wish they could travel back in time—and even those who try to live according to the standards of their favorite historical period. But fashion and technology aren't all that change over the course of time. It's much more difficult to reproduce intangible things, like mindsets. How can we ever fully understand what people in the past feared, hoped for, and found enjoyable?
House of Wax, an exhibit currently on display at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus, Brooklyn, aims to break down some of these barriers. In collaboration with indie movie theater chain Alamo Drafthouse and collector/television personality Ryan Matthew Cohn, who curated the exhibit, the museum has painstakingly recreated a popular late 19th century form of amusement that comes off as alien, even disturbing, to many modern viewers.
The exhibit is essentially a time machine to turn-of-the-century Berlin. After climbing a quick flight of stairs up from the museum's hip café, visitors find themselves inside a reincarnation of Berlin's long-defunct Castan's Panopticum, a popular weekend haunt for working- and middle-class families from the mid-19th century until it closed in 1922. The main attraction? Dozens of intricately-detailed wax models.
Wax as a medium may be familiar enough for modern audiences—but instead of the smiling Justin Biebers and Kate Middletons you'd find at your local Madame Toussaud's, the antique waxworks on display at the Morbid Anatomy Museum show explicit, sometimes gruesome medical and ethnographic curiosities. Two nude, dissected women recline in the middle of the exhibit; cases around the room's periphery show various skin diseases, pregnancy complications, and birth defects in vivid detail.
The museum's founder Joanna Ebenstein, who is currently writing a book about the 'dissectible' wax models of beautiful young women known as 'anatomical Venuses,' hopes that the exhibit will help modern visitors connect with history—and with their own mortality. As she told me,
At the time that these wax models were created, people were much more casually familiar with dead bodies that we are today today. Life expectancy was much lower, and people generally died in the home, with bodies laid out in the parlor for viewing and visiting. Today, real death is largely something that happens offstage, which has served to render looking at dead bodies somewhat exotic and taboo.
What's more, the anatomical models represented a crucial way for everyday people to learn about their own bodies. The models were designed to educate visually, without the need for explanatory texts, and many were created by the same artists who built models for medical schools. In other words, the models served to democratize biological knowledge—which was, at that time, moving at breakneck speed. Tellingly, many of the models focus on issues that would have piqued the interest of your average Victorian-era city dweller. Particularly popular topics were childbirth, sexually transmitted diseases, and the effects of tight-laced corsets on women's internal organs.
While the majority of House of Wax's models are anatomical or medical in nature, some reflect other popular curiosities. One case holds wax copies of death masks of famous individuals including Napoleon and Mary, Queen of Scots. Arranged atop the cabinets that line the walls are 'ethnographic' model heads, which show the features of various non-European people. Especially enigmatic is the delicate model of a young girl, perhaps a water nymph, who was dubbed 'Lolita' by a former owner. In contrast to the medical or ethnographic models, which served to some extent as educational materials, 'Lolita' had no discernible purpose beyond being pretty.
The original Castan's Panopticum would have housed a larger and more diverse array of waxworks that would be periodically refreshed to suit changing tastes. Still, the collection on display at the Morbid Anatomy Museum is a truly rare find: unlike collections from other, similar establishments, these models have stayed together since Castan's closure in the 1920s.
If you can't get enough of 19th-century Panoptica, don't miss University of Michigan professor and Panopticum expert Peter M. McIsaac's on-site lecture on Tuesday, April 5. House of Wax will be on display at the Morbid Anatomy Museum until May 30, 2016. Can't make it? Don't worry: in the not-too-distant future, the collection will move to Alamo Drafthouse's in-progress Brooklyn location.
Featured images courtesy of Morbid Anatomy Museum