As a bit of a brain-fanatic, I was very excited to attend the opening of the new Wellcome Collection exhibition in London, Brains: The Mind as Matter, at the end of March. I was particularly keen to see how the stated aim to focus on the brain as object would play out:
Brains takes the novel dual perspective of exploring the brain as both scientific and cultural object, examining what humans have done to brains in the cause of medical intervention, scientific enquiry, cultural meaning and technological advantage.
Most contemporary cultural engagements with the brain are bewitched by what neuroscience purports to tell us about the mind; focusing on what we have learned rather than how, why, and with what effects we have learnt it. And most depictions of the brain are entangled in the creation of a particular aesthetic, one that makes beautiful a potentially disgusting organ, as a mapped and controlled space that promises to tell us who we are.
Resisting the allure of neuroscience
Brains largely avoids both these temptations, demonstrating the Wellcome Collection’s ability to assemble astonishing and intriguing collections of objects, and to present them as material participants rather than as simple carriers-of-information.
Brains in misty jars, crumbling labels evoking famous – and infamously mistreated – persons, sit alongside teaching models, delicate traceries of anatomical drawings, jewel-like surgical instruments and worrisome images of surgery and its participants.
Artworks also insist on the materiality of the brain – such as in Ania Dabrowska’s (2011) evocative photo of a dissection headrest with slots sized for baby, child, and adult, from the series After I’m Gone. Or like Martha Henson’s (2012) remarkable video of the meditative, dexterous slicing of brains for storage in the MS Society and Parkinson’s UK Tissue Bank at Imperial College London.
Other pieces present the containers of brains; from museums that hold them to the bodies in which they were previously animated, flush with blood. Whilst some of the artworks – particularly those derived from brain images – felt to me too much in thrall to the epistemological promise of their subject, the collection as a whole refuses the disconnected ‘mind map’ so common in media representations of brain science.
The role of text and events in material encounters
My reservations, ironically, surround the use of text. The space is divided into four sections dealing with approaches to the brain-as-object: Measuring/Classifying, Mapping/Modelling, Cutting/Treating, and Giving/Taking. An elegant exhibition guide explains and tabulates each (see photo), but their relationship to the layout – which resembles a series of long aisles – is not terribly clear, indicated only by small wall titles.
Other visitors I talked to hadn’t noticed these delineations at all, and I think this is a shame: whilst I appreciate the freedom for visitors to have their own responses, there’s a lot of thought that’s gone into the material thematics that I fear people might miss.
Verbs such as ‘Cutting’, ‘Measuring’, and ‘Taking’ also have a gritty materiality – a what it is like – that could be more explicitly addressed. For instance, through questions inviting material imagination, or via phenomenological descriptions of how the objects feel and came to be.
However, an associated event called Brain Jar promised hands-on encounters, including a ‘live’ trepanning demonstration and trying out surgical skills (did anyone attend?). At Museion we have an ongoing discussion about how events can be used to supplement exhibitions with more direct material encounters. I think there’s an important pragmatics of the medium here, and the combination of event + exhibition is perhaps revealing of the tension between being a museum-focusing-on-materiality, and being a ‘science centre’. More generally, I think that the role of textual frames provided by wall texts, audio guides, and facilitators is often overlooked in negotiating this tension.
Ethics, more or less explicit?
My other reservation (or perhaps question, I’m still ruminating on this one) is the treatment of ethics. Human remains, medical objects, and documentary media that represent past ethical violations, controversial procedures, or even just unknown origins, are coolly presented in white gallery-like backdrops, with largely descriptive texts.
Whilst the texts do reference the problematic origins of many of the materials, I think they could have included more open questions, pointing out some of the fracture lines in how we evaluate medical research and intervention. The artworks do so more successfully, as for example in Self-portrait with Saw (1997) by William Utermohlen (shown left; click on the image to read the exhibition caption).
I don’t have a problem with showing these materials, and don’t mean to suggest that a respectful display of human remains has to get explicit about ethics (and definitely not through the jargon of ethics review boards). But my gut feeling is that normative questions are there, all the time, and providing accessible starting points that acknowledge their difficulty is important.
Focusing on the problematics of the past can also risk painting a too-simple picture of progress; ethical as well as scientific. Re-reading the exhibition guide I think it paints a rather comforting picture of today that those involved in critiquing contemporary practices of brain intervention and collection might dispute.
Of course, this is partly a matter of taste, and my academic interests inform my response. Others might think that the objects are quite capable of provoking discussion by themselves, or that this can occur elsewhere. Any thoughts / patterns of neural firing?!