“Most Wonderful and Glorious Collection of Anatomical Matter in the World:” Popular Anatomy at NYAM; Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy

Grand Anatomical Museum

“Six splendid female figures, size of life… the EXQUISITE FORM in all its natural delicacy… and consummate BEAUTY which ever has and ever will captivate the heart of man.”

Above is a fantastic piece of ephemera housed in the NYAM Historical Collections which was recently brought to my attention by Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts at NYAM.

This is a handbill advertising New York City’s Grand Anatomical Museum, one of the many for-profit, open to the pubic anatomical museums which were operating in New York and other European and American cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These collections were popular with the general public; they were both educational and spectacular, and often showcased objects of a titillating bent such as beautiful, unclothed wax women with real hair and glass eyes called Florentine, Parisian or anatomical Venuses (more on these fabulous creatures here), human freaks and–at a time when syphilis was both widespread and incurable–lurid wax depictions of genitalia deformed by venereal disease. These last could be found, more often then not, in a special “gentleman’s only” chamber.

Such museums were initially lauded by the medical establishment as excellent for laymen and medics alike. However, by the late 19th century, they became increasing associated with “quack” medical practitioners, who would use them as an kind of advertisement for their often mercury-based cures for sexuality transmitted diseases. Eventually, most of these museums were closed down–or even destroyed–under anti-obscenity laws.

Grand Anatomical Museum 2

You can find out more about popular anatomical museums in this article and book by Michael Sappol, who will be participating in NYAM’s upcoming Festival of Medical History and Arts on October 5th.  They were also explored in The Wellcome Collection’s 2009 exhibition Exquisite Bodies (for which I acted as curatorial consultant), and Maritha Rene Burmeister’s wonderful dissertation on the topic.

This post was written by Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series; click here to find out more.