Brains: The Mind As Matter at the Wellcome Collection

By Jennie Gillions | 28 March 2012
A photo of a white brain floating in a jar
© Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons of England, London
Exhibition: Brains: The Mind As Matter; Wellcome Collection, London, March 29 –  June 17 2012

“It’s lovely, isn’t it?” a Wellcome Collection staff member said as I left. Then he checked himself: “Well – not lovely, really. Interesting.”

Brains: The Mind As Matter is many things but, agreed, lovely is not one of them.

Having said that, some of the exhibits are beautiful. The first exhibit in the show is an image of artist Katharine Dowson’s brain, lasered onto lead crystal glass.

The delicacy of both this piece and Pablo García Lopez’s silk digital animation, A Very Big Brain is Coming, is at odds with the comparatively lumpen, but no less interesting, models in the first main section, Measuring/Classifying.

This section looks at the rise of phrenology and anthropometry – disciplines that perhaps tell us more about societal prejudice than they do about brain function.

The work of 19th and 20th century psychiatrist and phrenology proponent Bernard Hollander includes a drawing of the skull of a “cruel and violent” prostitute, used to validate Hollander’s theory that certain skull shapes denoted unsavoury characters.

Visitors can also see examples of anthropometric data collection in Empirical India and the work of “father of eugenics” Sir Francis Galton. These act as disturbing reminders of how the brain has been used as a prop to assert racial, social and intellectual superiority.

There are genuine preserved brains on show, including that of American suffrage campaigner Helen H Gardner. These could be disconcerting, but for the squeamish there are models and some exquisite drawings to examine in the Mapping/Modelling section.

Anatomist Vesalius’ extraordinary 1555 drawings give way to some glorious images of brain cells from groundbreaking Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, and a compelling video purporting to map brain activity in a subject listening to music.

Cutting/Treating is where The Mind As Matter starts to become undeniably poignant and potentially uncomfortable.

Photographer Corinne Day, who died in 2010, captured on film her preparations for brain surgery. There are some vaguely grotesque examples of wartime surgical instruments, and the colour photographs of operations are not for the faint-hearted.

However, the aim of this section is to show how understanding of the brain and surgeons’ abilities to treat it have progressed, and there’s no doubt it’s a fascinating evolution.

Obviously this progress would have been impossible without the study of real brains, and with this in mind we come to the final section, Giving/Taking.

Giving/Taking looks at brain harvesting since the 18th century, and includes the donated “left hemisphere of the brain of Charles Babbage”.

There are also photographs of the Brandenburg State Hospital, which was used as a Nazi “euthanasia” centre and was, as visitors will see, the site of many hideous atrocities committed against “inferiors”.

The introduction to the exhibition states that the human brain is the “most complex entity in the known universe”.

In order to advance their knowledge of it scientists need brain donors; three photographs at the end portray elderly people who have pledged their remains to brain banks. The labels make for touching reading.

So we finish on an affecting, humanising note – a fitting conclusion to an exhibition sufficiently balanced and engrossing as to render loveliness unnecessary.

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Thursday, 11am-6pm Sunday, closed Monday). Admission free.

More pictures:

A photo of a brain floating in dark yellow liquid in a jar
The preserved brain of women's suffragist Helen H Gardner, who died in 1925© Department of Psychology, Cornell University
A photo of a sculpted head drawn on to show parts of the brain
Phrenological head (Victoire). Plaster model (copy) (circa 1825)© Science Museum, London
A photo of a black and white brain with biological notes underneath it
The Brain of the American Negro Burt Green Wilder (1909)© Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library
An image of a black and white diagram of part of a human skull
Skull of Raphael, the painter. Lithograph and text on board, Bernard Hollander after Joseph Vimont (early 20th century)© Wellcome Library, London
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