Unassuming wisps of words allude to a homely traditional headache remedy, but their tendrils surround something a great deal stranger than an old wives’ tale: a brain emanating from a gloomy abyss like a deep sea creature, striving towards a hopeful light atop a lengthy spinal cord. In many ways, Helen Pynor’s Headache, a ghostly glass-mounted image, encapsulates the tone of the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition as one that seeks to reconcile the idea that we know so little about a piece of tissue that provides us with so much, and one which explores an organ that has catalysed dark practices and dogmas, but also harbours huge potential as a force for good.
The curators’ intention was to explore the “importance of the real object”, and it is in this vein that Brains presents the organ in every form imaginable: there’s much more on offer than just your standard wax models (lifelike though they are), with 3D films, technicolor digital micrographs, artistic impressions, even an MRI scan with a QR code (smartphone compatible) scattered throughout the space. There are also references to the brain’s astounding capacity: a brain wafer (paper thin mouse specimens laminated on tape) contains as much data as the whole of Google Earth when scanned to a high resolution, and a magnetic resonance imaging video by Daniel Magulies and Chris Sharp shows the fluctuating brain activity of a subject who listens to Stravinsky whilst digesting Kant’s Critique of Judgement.
Our objectification of the brain tells the story not only of the development of neuroscience, but also shows how our continuing attempts to understand it shift according to cultural and historical conditions. As guest curator Marius Kwint says, “what goes on between brains is as important as the content of the brain itself”. The exhibition doesn’t shy away from the fact that brain research has been used to inflict notorious agendas and doctrines, namely that of eugenics in Nazi Germany, where the murders of disabled children and adults were often passed off as pneumonia and subsequently corroborated by Hitler’s efficient bureaucratic state machinery. But the brain has brought out the best as well as the worst in humanity: a newspaper cutting from the 1920’s asking “Have men more brains than women?” is placed, almost triumphantly, next to the brain of women’s suffragist Helen H Gardner, and the research papers of surgeon Burt Green Wilder are on display, documents which led to resolutions on equal opportunities and state schooling for black Americans.
Although there are four sections, the feeling is less one of abrupt divisions between them but complete freedom to wander at leisure. Indeed, the exhibition’s designer Calum Storrie wanted to encourage visitors to make “accidental connections”. Windows and doorways opening up into other ideas pepper the space, almost mirroring the structure of the brain and its infinite network of synapses.
Despite the range of objects and artifacts, it’s not just a brain collector’s paradise. There are subtly sensitive elements which are as emotive as they are aesthetically intriguing: the incredibly moving self-portraits of William Utermohlen convey a man rendered hopeless by the onset of dementia, his final work portraying a face tragically collapsing as the self is lost. Yet this sense of despair is tempered by Ania Dabrowska’s photos and accounts of three people who wished to donate their brains to scientific research. It all makes for a thought-provoking journey. Brains goes beyond just a visual feast, and quietly adds to the sense of gravitas with which we approach our most mysterious organ.