The Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus, Brooklyn, stands near the banks of an infamous local waterway. A Superfund site, the Gowanus Canal is the tarnished legacy of Brooklyn’s industrial past. Foot-long oyster beds of old have been replaced by murky green water that can be smelled long before it’s seen. However, now a new cluster of edible pearls is growing around the banks of the canal. In old warehouses and derelict sites, the latest wave of gentrification has turned tumbledown into hip havens of food and art.
With a sunlight-filled coffee shop serving as the entrance to the museum, this newcomer is planted firmly at the crossroads of Gowanus’ tale of death and rebirth. These themes carry through into the locale itself: a not-for-profit bookstore, event space, museum and coffee shop dedicated to humanity’s odd relationship with its environment. Located at the corner of 3rd Avenue and 7th Streets, only a few blocks away from the borough’s first Whole Foods, this is a shrine for the healthy pursuit of all things unhealthy or just plain “weird”. Saintly statues stand guard inside, arms outstretched to the neighborhood in a welcoming invitation.
Stepping inside the museum visitors can enjoy a sip of single-origin Toby’s Estate, expertly selected by manager Paco Salas, browse a selection of unusual books and purchase tickets to the museum and upstairs library. Artists, writers, scientists and the just plain curious are flocking to experience the collection. The privately-owned exhibits change twice a year–currently on display is The Art of Mourning, “an exhibition showcasing decorative arts relating to mourning culture from the 18th to the 20th century.” Ticketholders and museum subscribers may also peruse the selection of curios and books in the adjoining library. In the downstairs space, visitors can enjoy encounters with famous and kooky intellectuals such as Jon Ronson showcasing the weird(er) side of Kubrick, learn the art of ethically-sourced taxidermy and meet fellow, potentially morbidly passionate, singles.
The seemingly surreal collection of objects on display at the museum belies an all-encompassing passion and vision. Speaking to coffee manager Paco Salas, it’s hard not to be enthused by his same strong passion for the profound side of coffee. Hailing from a family of coffee producers in the region of Veracruz, along Mexico’s South-Eastern Gulf Coast, Salas knows what it takes to grow amazing beans. His relationship with Toby’s Estate, honed through years as a beatnik-type barista, is founded on the company's dedication to quality single origin beans and building sustainable coffee communities. He hopes to see his native region’s coffee afforded the same premium privileges.
Salas considers himself as much a “curator” for this dark stimulant as for the museum, and most importantly for him, his culture. With a background in anthropology and linguistics, Salas hopes to combine his passion for the bean with his Mexican roots. He plans to one day document and preserve an entire culture for posterity, rescuing it from a fate similar to the animals and insects on display in Gowanus. This love for people and cultures translates into his approach as a manager, ensuring staff receive regular opportunities to train at Toby’s and invest in their own coffee-based careers.
Here at the Morbid Anatomy Museum visitors can find “a constructed space we inhabit just as the coffee shop is a form of curated laboratory for a limited set of coffee-based experiences.” Coffee-drinking is a transcendental act that, like the human condition or the animal skulls in the entrance, is rooted in the “weird, precious frailty” of each bean. Serious stuff. Try meditating on that whilst inhaling an exquisite flat white and wondering if the skeleton sitting in the chair opposite is staring at you or not…
Perhaps this “crematorium of coffee” is the perfect backdrop for a tongue-in-cheek experiment of art-meets-science. Just as the museum is a testament to the weird and wonderful kinks in the human condition, the coffee shop is a place for unusual visitors and everyday caffeine-drinkers alike to commune with flavors beyond the mundane. Just like “a man who falls in love with a corpse”, the museum’s strange-yet-homey mix of Mexican death-cult imagery, saintly paraphernalia and homage to dissection challenge assumptions of “normality”. For those seeking a post-nihilistic pick-me-up, cool meet-up spot or just a small taste of the sublime, MAM’s coffee and collections will do the trick.
Originally from the United Kingdom, Ruth Temianka is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Read more Ruth Temianka on Sprudge.