Maggots, mortuaries, bullets and Jack the Ripper: Wellcome Collection opens Forensics exhibition

By Rachel Teskey | 26 February 2015

The Wellcome Collection's murderous new exhibition concludes a multimillion pound development in dark and unflinching style

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Maggots from the body of a 1930s murder victim, a sketch of Jack the Ripper’s fourth victim on the mortuary slab, a piece of scalp alongside the bullet that pierced it. Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime could easily have been a macabre gore-fest. Instead, with the Wellcome Collection’s characteristic blend of art, history and medicine, it becomes much more.

The opening of Forensics marks the conclusion of the Wellcome’s multi-million pound transformation. With The Institute of Sexology continuing to draw huge audiences upstairs, the two temporary exhibitions – on sex and death – show that the full spectrum of human experience remains at the heart of the new Wellcome Collection.

A photo of a tall glass bottle through of blue liquid labelled arsenic
Poison bottle, blue for arsenic in solution© Wellcome Library, London
The exhibition is dark and unflinching but ultimately focused on very human stories. It traces the course of a forensic investigation from crime scene to courtroom, and from the emergence of the field through to today. Along the way, the exhibition features notorious cases and ground-breaking techniques, including the development of mugshots, fingerprinting and DNA profiling.

Throughout, the personal stories of victims, accused and professionals remain central. For instance, Isabella Ruxton and her maid Mary Rogerson were murdered by Isabella’s partner in 1935.

The case is known for its innovative use of forensic methods, including facial reconstruction. The technique, whereby photographs of the victims were superimposed onto photographs of skull fragments and cross-referenced in order to identify the remains, is displayed here in a sequence of haunting images.

Famous pathologist Bernard Spilsbury – whose cases included Dr Crippen and the ‘Brides in the Bath’ murders – features throughout the exhibition. The meticulous index cards detailing autopsies that he conducted provide an insight into Spilsbury’s dogmatic, borderline obsessive approach which would later bring his objectivity into question.

A photo of an organ and an old knife in separate glass containers
Liver with stab wound and knife© Barts Pathology Museum, Queen Mary University of London
By contrast, a series of videos with today’s forensic professionals clearly demonstrates their dedication, skill and respect for both the dead and those that they leave behind. Their frank testimonies are inspiring and humbling in equal measure.

There are no shortage of shocks in the exhibition. It is direct and at times unsettling. In ‘The Morgue’, you can see gruesome forensic illustrations from across history and listen to a real-time recording of an autopsy.

However, this is tempered by thought-provoking juxtapositions of past and present. Nine watercolours from 18th century Japan depicting the decomposition of a body are displayed opposite artistic photographs of a contemporary ‘body farm’. It shows that what we might think of as a very modern discipline is rooted in a much deeper understanding of the workings of the body.

A black and white photo of policemen crowded around a man lying prone on the floor
Hold up man killed (1941)© Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery, UK
Elsewhere, our enduring fascination with the darker side of human nature is highlighted. From a pamphlet – subtitled “The Naughty Doctor” and released to mark the execution of Dr Crippen – to clips from modern murder mysteries and courtroom dramas, it is hard to escape the pull that this dark side has exerted on us for centuries.

Across the exhibition, contemporary art, films and photography offer a different perspective. Installations exploring the mass execution of prisoners in the Chilean desert in 1973, war crimes in former Yugoslavia and a specially-commissioned piece on the aftermath of the Bosnian war powerfully convey the role and significance of forensics in unexpected circumstances.

This is not, as you might expect, an exhibition to turn the stomach, but rather one to tug at the heartstrings and one that, you suspect, will linger long in the mind.

  • You can see at the Wellcome Collection, London until June 21 2015.

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