“Welcome to the wedding of the 19th century,” Tracy Hurley Martin said to a room of about 40 people and about a hundred different animals, dead and stuffed, among them exotic birds, a giant lobster, and a pair of conjoined calves. In the middle of the room was a mid-sized glass case covered by a red velvet curtain.
We were in the second-floor exhibition room of the Morbid Anatomy Museum, a space in the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn. Cofounded by Martin and Joanna Ebenstein, the museum is dedicated to celebrating history, ideas, and artifacts surrounding the concept of death and its cultural implications.
After a few words by Martin, Ebenstein, and exhibition curator J.D. Powe, the curtain was removed to the cheers (and a few enthusiastic human meows) of the crowd, revealing what we all came to see: “The Kittens' Wedding,” a work of taxidermy constructed by Walter Potter in 1890. The diorama depicts two kittens fully dressed in bridal attire getting married as more than a dozen other kittens, clad in ornate gowns and three-piece suits, bear witness. There’s a kitten priest reading from a kitten bible, another kitten witness reading from his own book, and a smaller kitten flower boy dressed in a little sailor outfit. It’s adorable, bizarre, enchanting, slightly disturbing, and, well, to bring out my inner Victorian-era white person, exquisite.
The opening party marked the first time Potter’s work has been on public display in America. Earlier this year, J.D. Powe teamed up with Antediluvian Antiques & Curiosities and acquired the piece for a hammer price of $100,000 (with $25,000 of added fees). It was then sold for an undisclosed amount to Sabrina Hansen, who has allowed the Museum to display this piece of history. “The Kittens’ Wedding” was the main event of the Museum’s latest exhibition, Taxidermy: Art, Sciene & Immortality, which also included other antique anthropomorphic work like squirrels playing cards, exotic birds (some of which are now extinct), taxidermied pets, and even “crap taxidermy," the internet phenomenon of celebrating janky taxidermy fails.
The star of the show, “The Kitten’s Wedding” itself, is a lot to take in—there’s a ton of character and liveliness in the scene. While the debonair male kittens with their pocket watches and ascots have an almost shrewd feel, the female kittens, whose Victorian dresses are accompanied by necklaces and earrings, have an uncanny sense of wonder in their eyes. It sort of seems like a group of children playing dress-up, not, um, dead cats—which, by the way, were not killed for the sake of art. Potter was a country taxidermist living in an age before spaying and neutering. According to Potter experts, farmers would bring Potter dead animals, fully aware of his art.
It’s interesting to see “The Kittens' Wedding” through an internet-era cat-obsessed lens—it seems like our collective proclivity to project ourselves into nature for sheer enjoyment is integral to being human. What the hell is that about?
“I think humans are egocentric,” Powe told me. “We are sort of unique in the natural world with respect to having practices that we engage in that are uniquely human. The idea of seeing animals—for example, squirrels—that are not particularly held in high esteem do those activities that are in our exclusive domain is a disruptive thing to be able to see. I think that’s what really generates the intrigue.”
Sure, the thought of preserving dead animals and projecting human activities on them for the sake of entertainment and art probably sounds disturbing, but keep in mind that taxidermy was very much an accepted part of 19th-century culture. “Taxidermy at the time when [Potter] was growing up was just kind of part of what people did,” Joanna Ebenstein, co-founder of the Morbid Anatomy Museum told me over the phone, explaining that it was a subject routinely featured in women’s magazines (imagine if Cosmo had a section on taxidermy).
“Taxidermy arguably reached its height in the Victorian era in terms of popularity,” curator Powe told me over the phone. “There was, I think, a desire in that era to sort of capture nature and obviously this was consistent with a period of exploration, of wanting, if you were well to-do in that era, to appear worldly and knowledgeable about the natural world.”
As much as it was a way to showcase man’s simultaneous appreciation for and conquest of nature, taxidermy was also just an everyday hobby. No Victorian-era person would bat a lash at the fact that this completely normal pursuit involved dead animals. “[It was] seen as genteel, a craft that anybody could do, and it wasn’t seen as perverse or grotesque or morbid the way that it is seen today,” Ebenstein explained. And looking at the works of Walter Potter, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to see how some carefully positioned rodents and felines could be earnestly charming and droll.
Of course, neither Potter’s prolific career nor the eerily captivating humanity of his pieces necessarily mean that the quality of the taxidermy itself is, um, excellent. Potter’s biggest fans would be the first to admit that the man, who was self-taught, didn't have the technical finesse that some other contemporary taxidermists did. Then again, perhaps it was that lack of skill that brought out something special.
“Unlike a lot of taxidermists, he doesn’t seem at all to be trying to make them look like kittens,” Ebenstein said of “The Kittens’ Wedding.” “He’s trying to make them look like cartoon characters. It reminds me of Disney more than it reminds me of taxidermy.”
For those not familiar with the history of taxidermy or Victorian history, Potter’s works can seem like a fun but disturbing novelty, but for Ebenstein, what Potter’s works represent goes much deeper, challenging the way modern society views death and its appropriateness.
“The idea that one can take pleasure at all in something that involves death is an idea that has been around for centuries and centuries, until about the last 150 years,” she told me. “That change has made so much of the past seem bizarre, and that includes 'The Kittens' Wedding.'”
The 19th century saw a lot of change with regards to nature, technology, and death practices. As Ebenstein pointed out, death was everywhere—three in five children never made it to adulthood, people used to butcher their own meats. As hygiene and medical practices improved, the mortality rate fell and death practices changed. For example, embalming (which had been previously considered a fate worse than death) became a regular practice during the Civil War. Death was removed from everyday life and family and became industrialized.
“This point of view we have today is very historically new and it has to do with death becoming exotic and happening off stage in a way that makes it seem scary and other,” Ebenstein said. “And I don’t think in the 19th century that was the case at all.”
Potter’s works remain a taxidermy triumph and a unique glimpse into a moment in time when death was as normal and as present as life. As Ebenstein said, “It was a very different world in which people were much closer to nature. Part of nature is death.”