Jon Pichaya Ferry held in his hand a small case that houses a mouse skeleton, perfectly preserved but very delicate. His father, James H. Ferry, who was a businessman, gave it to him as a gift when he turned 13. “Instead of presenting it as creepy, dark and scary, he showed it to me from an academic and educational light,” shared Ferry, “And this really pioneered my interest and love for bones.”
His father passed when Ferry was 17, leaving him with a yearning to follow in his footsteps. He started JonsBones, a business where he would buy and sell human bones out of his dorm room at Parsons School of design. It might have raised a few eyebrows among his dorm mates, but JonsBones quickly went from success to success, based at first in Ferry’s various apartments and later a warehouse. By this time, as he told Vice News in 2022, his collection was worth over half a million dollars. But sales weren’t enough for Ferry, who had an educator’s mind.
Fast forward to 2023, and Ferry stood proudly in The Bone Museum that he founded, the culmination of a deep passion for osteology (the study of bones). Located in the storied McKibbin Lofts in Bushwick, the museum is housed in a large room with a naked brick facade and a high ceiling. “In the museum we’ve housed over 13 real articulated skeletons. We have over 100 real skulls as well as skulls with varying pathologies and abnormalities,” said Ferry.
Everything about Ferry seemed urbane— his impeccable neutral American accent, his astuteness, his fit. His shoulder length hair fell in careful waves, framing a wide eyed smile. He had a wall with 129 complete human spines, hanging behind him. With his tastefully designed exhibition space, Ferry aims to pull the human bone business out of the realm of medical oddities and into the cultural mainstream.
“Very often people are like, ‘Oh, this is creepy.’ You must be obsessed with death. And it was actually quite the opposite,” he said.“My classical training is in industrial design, so I’ve always been curious about the structure and the design behind the skeletal system.” Education and accessibility has always trumped any sort of horror-oriented themes for the museum. According to Ferry, only about 20% of visitors are interested in the macabre aspects of the collection. The rest are usually regular people looking for something to do in Bushwick along with a few orthopedic doctors, forensic anthropologists and scientists. “We really have a conversation about these skeletons and the history surrounding them,” said Ferry. Larger museums have often eschewed these kinds of conversations, preferring to limit access to human remains to medical professionals and scientists.
Collecting and displaying human bones is legal in all but a few states in America. But it’s a polarizing topic, as Ferry discovered through his hugely popular Tik Tok account, which has half a million followers, and an Instagram account with 50,000 followers. Common knowledge about the provenance of human bones is limited and there are many who are rightly critical about larger museums displaying and housing the bones of BIPOC individuals.
Neil Gordon, a public speaking coach, mentor to Ferry and a patron of the museum, shared an insight. “I saw that there were a lot of people who reacted to the topic from a place of judgment,” said Gordon, adding, “Without Jon’s temperance and precision, these types of interactions could easily have escalated.” Ferry added that “with a topic as polarizing as the medical bone trade, it is important to provide clear, concise, and accurate information.”
“For our museum, everything is anonymous. These were all people that donated their bodies to science. They were all sold in medical catalogs. They can’t be returned. They can’t be repatriated. They can’t be donated. So we fall into a different ethical category,” said Ferry. He takes great care to know the history of every piece that he handles, he explained, often traveling to see collections and individual pieces across the country and other parts of the world.
This is a wise approach in an industry with some problematic roots. Back in the 1700s, most bones were sourced by grave robbing, or they once belonged to murderers. The controversial Murder Act of 1751 mandated that individuals convicted of murder were denied a burial. The Anatomy Act of 1832 put an end to this practice by allowing only those with a license to collect and dissect bodies left unclaimed at hospitals, poor houses and prisons for over 48 hours. More importantly, it also allowed next of kin to donate their loved ones’ bodies for medical study. This led to a boom in the industry, with many companies like Adam, Rouilly and Kilgore International emerging as large-scale suppliers of human bones.
In the 1950s, India emerged as one of the primary exporters of human remains worldwide, in what amounts to a sordid and exploitative tale that spans decades. While companies in the West were happy to receive consignments, it was impossible to track where the bones came from. Ferry shook his head and said, “bone companies would go up and say, ‘hey, if you donate your loved one’s bodies to science, we’ll pay for the cremation.’ So this often ended up targeting marginalized communities and lower castes in India.”
Ferry said that at one point, $2 million was being added to India’s GDP each year for this trade at a time where a skull was being sold for between $5 and $6 wholesale. In 1983, 60,000 Indian skulls were shipped to the U.S. and the U.K. in one year. The import of human remains from India was banned in the mid ‘80s and this caused the industry to collapse, making businesses like JonsBones even more important.
“The business really started with a fundamental problem,” said Ferry. “What do you do with the bones? We found that the best thing is to purchase these pieces back from the general public and to sell them to universities, schools and hospitals. The best solution at this time is to try to get them back into the educational field.”
The sales division of JonsBones has seen a whopping 30% increase in revenue each year. In their online catalog, you can find skulls ranging from $2000 to $6000 and original antique half-skeleton boxes for between $5500 and$7500. While fraught with pitfalls, the human bone business can be very lucrative. You could also get an individual rib for as low as $23 or a single vertebrae for 50 bucks.
Most of what is earned via sales goes towards the maintenance of The Bone Museum and paying the staff of both organizations. While the museum opened its doors a couple of months earlier, Ferry is already looking to the future, working on public programs like anatomy painting classes, community events with experts from the fields of forensics, medicine, anthropology and archeology. He also aims to keep refreshing the collection and encourages patrons to become members for $30 a month, giving them unlimited access to the museum and the ability to bring a guest. While none of the exhibits on display are for sale, there’s a little gift counter where you can buy rare books, tees and other merchandise.
For patrons like Gordon, who lost his father to a medical error, an educational space like The Bone Museum is deeply personal. “I support anything that will help medical personnel to be more proficient diagnosticians,” said Gordon. “This includes having a more nuanced understanding of the role that bones play in understanding the nature of disease and illness.”
This echoes a narrative that Ferry repeated many times during our interaction. “We don’t want clients to just come in and look at the bones, but we want them to be able to interact, to feel, to touch, to learn,” he said.
The Bone Museum
Location:255 McKibbin St., studio 0014, Brooklyn, NY 11206
Hours: The Bone Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed on Monday and Tuesday.
Contact: (914) 230-0937