NEW YORK – Growing up in Uniontown, Pa., the Hurley twins, Tracy and Tonya, spent most weekends attending funerals with their grandmother. “In our hometown, Sundays were either for funerals or a Steelers game,” said Tracy, who is now Tracy Martin. “And our grandmother was a funeral fly.”
Funerals were also the family business. Their great-uncle Vito ran a funeral parlor, and he and his wife and five daughters lived upstairs. “It was just like working in a deli,” Martin said. “Gorgeous cousin Denise” was the mortician, and when the twins’ father, a boxer and irregular presence in their lives, died of a heart attack when he was 42 and they were 19 and attending college (the first members of their family to do so), Denise laid him out. “He looks like hell,” Martin recalled her saying. “I’ll see what I can do.”
On a recent raw April afternoon, Martin, the chief executive of the Morbid Anatomy Museum, opening in Gowanus, Brooklyn, next month – think peculiar Victorian taxidermy, illustrations of medical pathologies and preserved insects, among other cultish curiosities – and Hurley, the author of best-selling young-adult novels starring dead heroines (specifically teenage martyrs and ghosts), sat side by side at Martin’s dining room table and tried to explain their own family business, their lifelong obsession with death and how Martin came to be the overseer of a cultural institution devoted to the dead and the ghastly.
“We find joy in the macabre,” Martin began. “It’s fertile.”
The setting was perfect: a late-19th century Brooklyn brownstone that had been given a kind of Morbid Anatomy makeover by Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, the former movie-set designers now known for their highbrow, Steampunk-ish domestic and hotel interiors. There were black-and-yellow poppies in a vase and, on the wall, a stupendous Victorian mourning wreath. A black leather Dunbar sofa wore a hulking buffalo skin.
Martin and Hurley, now 43, wore similar (though not identical) black tunics, black tights and boots. As Hurley said, “We will wear black until they invent a darker color.”
Every few minutes, a burst of electronic music wafted up from the basement. Martin is married to Vince Clarke, the English synth-pop star who is a founding member of Depeche Mode and half of the band Erasure. Clarke was on deadline for a new Erasure album and had been holed up for days in his basement studio with an arsenal of analog synthesizers.
The family business is music, films, books and now a museum (Hurley is on the board), much of it with a dark side. Hurley is married to Michael Pagnotta, a music and brand manager whose company, Reach, used to employ both sisters and who has handled not only Erasure, Depeche Mode, Morrissey, George Michael, Prince and the Cure, but also the Olsen twins. “We were the twins behind the twins,” Martin said.
The idea for the new Morbid Anatomy Museum was planted two Halloweens ago, when Martin and Hurley attended a talk that Joanna Ebenstein was giving about the cult of Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, at a bookstore in Brooklyn.
Ebenstein, an artist, is something of a scholar of the macabre. Since 2008, she has presided over the Morbid Anatomy Library, a tiny exhibition space at Proteus Gowanus, an arts organization, that grew out of her wildly popular Morbid Anatomy blog, both of which are devoted to expressions of all that is ghoulish: books bound in human skin, for example, or post-mortem photography or Victorian mourning wreaths or Santa Muerte relics. Or, as Ebenstein likes to say, the bizarre, the liminal and the beautiful.
In this incarnation, Morbid Anatomy had accrued a passionate fan base eager to participate in its squirrel taxidermy workshops and attend its Morbid Curiosity Singles Nights. When the sisters saw the extent of Ebenstein’s collections and learned her history, Martin told her, “I always thought there should be a gift shop and a cafe around this stuff.” As she recalled recently, Ebenstein replied, “ ‘You’re right, and it should be attached to a real museum, and I can give that to you.’ I can’t remember the moment it got serious, but it made the transition from fanciful to real pretty quickly.”
For Martin, who is used to wrangling rock stars and celebrities, creating a museum from scratch was no fantasy project. She tackled it, Ebenstein said, with startling tenacity and deadpan humor. The twins will tell you they got their work ethic from their mom, a nurse who worked three jobs to raise them, with a little help from her own mother. (See “funeral fly,” above.)
In just under a year, Martin and Ebenstein, along with Colin Dickey, co-editor of “The Morbid Anatomy Anthology,” and Aaron Beebe, an artist and the former director of the Coney Island Museum, assembled a board, hired the executive and curatorial staff, found an architect (two, actually), raised money in a Kickstarter campaign and found space in a former nightclub in Gowanus. The Brooklyn Arts Council is a sponsor. The other day, Martin proudly brandished the museum’s official charter from the state.
When it opens next month, the three-story, 4,200-square-foot museum – painted black, of course, and designed by the architects Robert Kirkbride and Anthony Cohn – will have not just exhibition spaces, but an expansive library, a lecture and events space, a gift shop and a cafe, where you’ll be able to snack on mourning cookies and chocolate bird skulls. The first show, in early summer, is on the work of the Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter, a cult figure who made weird anthropomorphic tableaux of things like kittens getting married, having tea or playing poker. There will be Morbid Anatomy residencies and Morbid Anatomy workshops – wearable taxidermy, anyone?
When Martin held a fundraiser for the museum at her house, Ebenstein said, its décor showed Martin to be a true believer. “You can see from Tracy’s house that her aesthetic is a rarefied version of what our aesthetic is,” Ebenstein said. “Almost an aspirational model of what Morbid Anatomy is all about. It was really important for our community to see that. It put our cult audience at ease. I think they could see that the museum is not going to be this stupid, kitschy death-salon place.”
The house enjoyed a different kind of fame when Clarke and Martin bought it two years ago from Jenna Lyons, creative director of J. Crew. Ever since appearing (twice) on the cover of the old Domino magazine, the place had been relentlessly blogged about. Fans pored over its elements: Lyons’ bright yellow English sofa and spare kitchen, her beds with their plain white sheets, the entire bedroom she had turned into a closet.
It was also a fantasy for Martin, who had dreamed about living in a classic Brooklyn brownstone ever since she and her sister shared a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Heights.
She is not alone in the fantasy. There was a bidding war, she said, and Lyons asked that final bids be accompanied by a personal essay, just like a college application. “I wrote a really long letter,” Martin said. “I told my story – we have sons about the same age – and made my case and my promise that I would love the house as much as she had.”
Also, she said: “Vince ponied up. I told him, this is it. This is where I’m going to die. Hopefully not anytime soon.”
They ended up paying $4 million, $250,000 over the asking price.
With help from her sister, Martin began to fill the place. But its visual legacy – the ghost of Jenna Lyons – was hard to shake. “I kept trying to buy her sofa, but in a different color,” Martin said.
She had always planned to outsource, but it wasn’t easy to find designers who shared her sensibility. Finally, she saw photographs of Standefer and Alesch’s own loft, a mash-up of early-20th-century industrial elements, ebonized wood, fur, metal, leather and bones. Their firm, Roman and Williams, has a reputation for making places that appear to have been around for 100 years, without looking like historical re-creations.