“Witness the ‘Wall of Genitals’”: Anatomical Display at Brooklyn’s House of Wax

Located in the lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Brooklyn, the House of Wax is a dimly lit bar decorated with more than 100 anatomical, pathological, and ethnographic wax models. Once part of Castan’s Panopticum, a popular attraction in Berlin from 1869 to 1922, the models were purchased last year by collector Ryan Matthew Cohn. Needing the space and money to keep the collection together, Cohn struck a deal with Tim League, CEO of Alamo Drafthouse, to open the House of Wax: a museum in a bar in a movie house. The museum-bar operates under a general motto: “By better understanding the past, perhaps we can better understand the present.” This phrase appears on the House of Wax website and was repeated verbatim by the bar’s curator in a recent interview. As a framing statement, however, the motto is frustratingly meaningless. What exactly are we trying to understand about the past through the display of these models and, even more confusingly, what is that supposed to tell us about our present?

Existing publicity provides little acknowledgment of the complex history of medical models as cultural objects and fails to question the owners’ stated desire “to revive and evoke the atmosphere of Castan’s Panopticum.”1 The bar’s displays are justified by references to Castan’s history, supplied by University of Michigan professor Peter McIssac, who wrote an essay accompanying the models for an earlier exhibit at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum. In it, McIsaac rightfully states that the educational guise of 19th-century anatomy exhibits was not hollow rhetoric, as visitors from all social classes could hope to acquire anatomical knowledge from them that was not available elsewhere.2

But does this hold true in the 21st century? It feels like Cohn and League are gesturing at this history to justify their endeavor and, more troublingly, to free themselves from any responsibility for what kinds of responses their display generates today.

19th-century broadsheet advertisement for an anatomical museum in New York. (Morbid Anatomy)

Furthermore, I believe the bar intentionally plays off a very specific period in the history of anatomical exhibits, towards the end of the 19th century, when such shows had acquired an unsavory reputation. As popular anatomy came to be considered a low-class entertainment, the illicit nature of the displays increased. In some cases, entrepreneurs segregated the models dealing with reproduction and sexual diseases into “gentleman only” areas, charging extra fees for admission.

A similar environment of forbidden allure is at work at the House of Wax. Visitors are greeted at the door with a warning about the bar’s contents and a velvet curtain inside obscures the section on genital abnormalities and STDs. This serves as a challenge to visitors, daring them to look.

This emphasis on titillation downplays or outright ignores the long history of suffering that accompanied such diseases, as well as the painful medical interventions physicians employed to treat them. For example, before the advent of salvarsan, the “magic bullet” cure for syphilis, patients with secondary syphilis suffered muscle aches, swollen glands, and genital ulcers, while those with tertiary syphilis suffered brain damage and severe facial disfigurements.3

These models were likely composites based on real patients and, while we cannot know the exact sources for each, we should at least acknowledge these are markers of real pain. Even the anatomical models that depict the “normal” structures of the body are remnants of a medical culture that historically privileged some bodies over others.

For example, in her history of Gray’s Anatomy, Ruth Richardson reminds us that medical knowledge was frequently were derived from the messy dissection of human bodies in medical schools. In the period before body donation, these bodies often came from places of social marginalization — poorhouses or paupers’ cemeteries — and their dissection was a form of dehumanization.4 But is there space for empathy as one snacks on Truffle Parmesan Popcorn or sips an artisanal cocktail?

Cohn studies one of the two Anatomical Venus figures on display at the House of Wax. (Joshua Bright/New York Times)

In addition, treating the models solely as decorative objects prevents patrons from learning about the richness of these objects. For example, the bar has two life-sized Anatomical Venuses that depict the pregnant female body. Such models strike modern viewers as odd but, in her history of Venus figures, Morbid Anatomy founder Joanna Ebenstein contends that their uncanny beauty was related to the models’ didactic function, transforming the study of gestational anatomy from a messy and short-lived endeavor into a humanistic exploration.5

As Cara Delay discussed here on Nursing Clio, these figures also carried meaning beyond the dissecting theater, signifying various ideas about womanhood, human gestation, beauty, and whiteness. But, at the House of Wax, the glass cases that house the figures are outfitted with rails for holding drinks because, as Cohn told the New York Times, “It would be really cool if you could have your drink and hang out with the two women giving birth.”

Actually, the Venuses on display are not “giving birth”; one figure’s abdomen is folded open to show the fetus in utero while the other Venus depicts disembodied hands removing a fetus from a dead female body. That Cohn misunderstands the figures, provides no historical context for them, and uses them as “cool” decorations is deeply upsetting.

Cohn, posing with a fetal specimen. Behind him, his wife Regina reclines on a vintage gynecological table, recalling the Anatomical Venus. Altogether, the image functions as a macabre family portrait. (Ryan Matthew Cohn/Instagram)

The only instance I can find in which Cohn expresses reservations about displaying his models is in relation to the ethnographic busts.

During the Morbid Anatomy Museum exhibit, Cohn spoke about the potential offensiveness of these objects and their outdated representations of race. When asked about their display in the House of Wax, Cohn claimed he had thought about that question a lot: “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.”

Yet, although the bar’s menu does contain an abbreviated version of Professor McIsaac’s original essay, there appears to be little else to explain the history of the busts. Where is the reference to Germany’s colonization of Africa or the positioning of colonized peoples as objects of scientific inquiry? Where is the nod to racial science in the late nineteenth century, whereby scientists sought confirmation of their deeply held belief that the Anglo-Saxon race was intellectually and physically superior to all other races?6

Wax ethnographic busts from Castan’s Panopticum, an anatomical museum in Berlin from 1869 to 1922. (Ryan Matthew Cohn/Morbid Anatomy)

In general, Cohn does not seem interested in the full history of the models. He has been a well-known collector of morbid oddities for years, cultivating a public persona centered on his unusual interests.

His work is about fashioning an identity for himself rather than engaging in deeper questions about the history of medicine; he has stated that he likes to work with specimens “so others in the future can see what I’ve done with it, my take on it.”7

He also identifies himself as an obsessive collector with good taste: “I’ve always had a weird skill of being interested in things right before they become cool. I mean, I’ve always been good at that.”8 Since the bar’s opening in October, Cohn has given several interviews and has posted a handful of photos of the models on his Instagram account, the responses to which suggest the kind of spectacle Cohn courts. One photo on Instagram, which Cohn titled the “Wall of Genitals,” elicited a comment that reads, “The Great Wall of Vaginas.” Cohn later added his own comment, writing: “I should mention there are penis’s [sic] & hermaphrodites as well.”9

Disability historians have articulated how the uncritical display of bodies, especially those considered “anomalous,” have long been a source of both wonder, meaning, and profit. We cannot pretend that the display of these waxes ever was an objective practice, or that their display in the House of Wax comes with no resonance for the present.

The display of the anomalous body, whether in the flesh at a “freak show” or represented in wax, has always been an expression of larger ideas about nature, medicine, human evolution, and/or morality.10

To honor its own motto, the House of Wax should at least acknowledge the complex meanings carried by the models and consider what ideologies they are engaging with in their current display. Joanna Ebenstein once commented that the models “sit on the flickery, amorphous edge between spectacle and education” and it is that relationship between spectacle and education that makes the models so worthy of study.11 By displaying them in a bar, playing up their transgressive qualities, and providing little historical context for them, Cohn and League have pushed them over that edge. They have acted carelessly towards the models and their history and, perhaps more problematically, they have failed to take responsibility for the ideological work these models continue to do in the present.

Notes

  1. The House of Wax, “Museum.” Return to text.
  2. On popular anatomy exhibits in the United States, see Michael Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004). Return to text.
  3. On the history of sexually transmitted disease in the U.S., see Allan Brandt, No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States since 1880 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). Return to text.
  4. Ruth Richardson, The Making of Mr. Gray’s Anatomy: Bodies, Books, Fortune, Fame (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). On the 19th-century sourcing of cadavers in the UK, see Richardson, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); for the United States, see Sappol. Return to text.
  5. Joanna Ebenstein, “The Birth of Venus,” in The Morbid Anatomy Anthology, eds. Joanna Ebenstein and Colin Dickey (Brooklyn, NY: Morbid Anatomy Press, 2014), 66-85; see also Ebenstein, The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death, & the Ecstatic (New York: Thames and Hudson and Artbook/D.A.P, 2016). Return to text.
  6. See Ann Fabian, The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010) and Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981). Return to text.
  7. Ronni Thomas, “The Midnight Archive: The Art of Ryan Matthew Cohn,” YouTube video, 04:59, posted May 15, 2013, (italics added). Return to text.
  8. Eugene S. Robinson, “‘Oddities’ Star Ryan Matthew Cohn Wants Your Skulls,” Ozy, September 26, 2014. See also New York Magazine, “In the Magazine: The Taxidermy Collector,” YouTube video, 03:36, posted October 21, 2010. Return to text.
  9. Ryan Matthew Cohn, Instagram post, November 2016. Return to text.
  10. On the display and spectacle of anomalous bodies, see Rosemarie Garland-Thomson ed., Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York: NYU Press, 1996). For a related discussion about modern anatomical displays, see Nadja Durbach, “‘Skinless Wonders’: Body Worlds and the Victorian Freak Show,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 69 (2012): 38-67. Return to text.
  11. Donni Levit, “Cabinets of Curiosity: ‘House of Wax’ at the Morbid Anatomy Museum,” Bklyner, October 22, 2015. Return to text.

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