Friday, May 6, 2016

'The Morbid Anatomy Salon' at the Wellcome Collection, 5th May 2016

Fetish skulls! Wax guts! Dead kittens! Attending a Morbid Anatomy lecture feels like re-uniting with an old friend. It's been nearly four years since Seize the Day and judging by the fact that this event sold out in a matter of minutes, death appears to be extremely en vogue. 

Morbid Anatomy are at the forefront of contemporary death, with Joanna Ebenstein's excellent blog having developed into the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York City. Their mission statement is "to excavate the intersections of the history of art and medicine, death and culture" and to that end they presented four very different but equally fascinating lectures.

Skulls in Fontanelle Cemetery
First up was Chiara Ambrosio, who transported us to an obscure cave on the wrong side of the tracks in Naples. This is the Fontanelle cemetery, where the chaotically scattered bones of Neapolitans lie, many dating from the great plagues that periodically decimate the city's poor. Over the years, a cult has arisen around these bones, its devotees constructing miniature 'homes' for skulls and seeking practical and spiritual advice from them in their dreams. This personal hotline to the afterlife threatens the monopoly of the Catholic Church, who declared that the devotees had "degenerated into fetishism" and ordered that the practice end. Which it did. At least the devotees said they'd stopped...

Secret death cults in obscure Neapolitan caves are (by my standards at least) completely infused with romantic adventure. Accentuating this is Ambrosio's lyrical and poetic analysis of the phenomenon, her lecture accompanied by live musical accompaniment. She created a woozy, dreamlike atmosphere - beginning with the surface geography of the city and subsequently burrowing deeply into the psychology of its inhabitants. 

Anatomical Venus by Susini and Ferrini
Next was Kate Forde's retrospective on the Wellcome Collection's 2009 exhibition Exquisite Bodies, which showcased wax anatomical models from the 19th century. These 'anatomical venuses' awkwardly straddle dispassionate medical education and quasi-religious eroticism. Forde gave us a whistle-stop tour through the history of wax anatomical models in London; explaining how they were first considered an unambiguous public good but soon fell victim to pearl-clutching Victorian moralists.

Throughout the talk I was mentally filing away things to research in depth later; Dr Kahn's wildly popular anatomy museum in Leicester Square; the delights of the Roca Collection and the classically beautiful, impossibly detailed wonders of Susini and Ferrini. Underneath all this lies a weird dichotomy between the surgery and the freakshow - the wax figures attracting attention as much for their sensuousness as their instructive anatomical detail. I hesitate to plumb the psychological dark spaces that fuel their popularity - what does is say about men who're attracted to a passive feminine body that invites you to strip her down to her womb?

Death and Doctor Hornbook
This was swiftly followed by the personable Ross MacFarlane, with Death and Dr Buchan. Dr Buchan was a medical celebrity of the 18th century, feted for his globally popular Domestic medicine, a layperson's guide to treated common maladies. MacFarlane examined the impact of this book through Robert Burns' Death and Doctor Hornbook, in which a man comes across a despondent Death, worried that his services are longer required due to the activities of the titular Doctor. Yet Hornbook isn't some medical wunderkind - his self-taught home treatments are simply killing off far more people than Death ever could.

How much should the public know about medical science? This knowledge used to be the preserve of professionals; who perhaps assumed the general populace was too stupid to understand medicine or (more likely) was afraid that wide dissemination would weaken their businesses. Authors like Buchan broadened access to this knowledge, yet, as Pope famously said, "a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing". 

While there are numerous minor problems that people can treat themselves, there's much that probably should stay in the realms of professionals. One only has to look at the rise in internet self-diagnosis/treatment or the alternative medicine industry to see what can happen when people think they know better than a trained professional.

Finally we get to Dr Pat Morris, former Senior Lecturer in Zoology at the University of London and authority on taxidermy. The subject was the taxidermy of Walter Potter, clearly a passion project for Morris. The origin is a visit to his small museum "when I was in short trousers", where he was confronted by his striking anthropomorphic dioramas, the most famous being The Death and Burial of Cock Robin. I can see why he's such a fan - I got to see them (courtesy of Dr Morris) at 2013's The Museum of Everything) and they're just the right cocktail of weird and cool.

With the aid of examples he's brought with him, he gives us a brief biography of Potter. This ties into a wider ruminance on the popularity of taxidermy in Britain. A stuffed bird or family pet would have been an everyday sight in a Victorian household, but postwar squeamishness caused a gradual loss in popularity. Fortunately, taxidermy is on the rise again: chic workshops where you can 'stuff your own mouse' booked up for months in advance. 

The Death and Burial of Cock Robin
Dr Morris regards these johnny-come-latelys with a faint sniffiness, pointing out that the same kind of contemporary artwork that's now selling for big bucks was being done by his co-workers ten years ago - to little acclaim. Still, he must be pleased that the Potter works he's saved are being appreciated anew and judging by the crowds that gathered at the front of the lecture hall appreciated quite passionately. I love them: a three dimensional, powerfully physical manifestation of creatures, scenes and personalities long dead.

Once again Morbid Anatomy proves to be very much my kind of event. I look forward to the next thing they have coming up. One day, one glorious day I will visit their New York museum.

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