An exhibition that gives visitors a physical encounter with the human brain opens today.
Real human brains will be on display including those of Albert Einstein, Charles Babbage and William Burke and the exhibition is filled with thoughts on brains from the brains of famous thinkers, together with donors, surgeons, patients and collectors.
The exhibition, Brains: the mind as matter, includes more than 150 objects such as rare and astonishing images of real brains, artworks, manuscripts, artefacts, videos and photography. It explores what human brains have done to brains in the cause of medical intervention, scientific enquiry, cultural meaning and technical change.
The exhibition at the Wellcome Trust in London is being guest curated by Dr Marius Kwint, art historian and University of Portsmouth lecturer in visual culture, and is supported by the University’s Centre for Art, Architecture and Design.
He said: “The exhibition shows how a single, fragile organ has become the object of modern society’s most profound hopes, fears and beliefs, and some of its most extreme practices and advanced technologies. The different ways in which we have treated and represented real, physical brains open up a lot of questions about our collective minds.”
“The brain is the most complex entity in the known universe and the exhibition is a fascinating exploration of how humans have tried to come to terms with this infinitely mysterious organ.”
The exhibition has four sections but perhaps the most intriguing – and gruesome – is the exploration of the history of surgical intervention on a form of human tissue that is uniquely swift to decay and difficult to dissect. A 5000 year-old skull with holes drilled into it illustrates how long humans have been intervening directly in the matter of the brain, and the exhibition takes a long view of tools and methods and looks at the human stories behind the anatomy of brains.
There are portraits of patients under the care of Dr Harvey Cushing and his pioneering surgical techniques at the turn of the last century which sit beside the work of artist Corinne Day, which records her as she prepares to undergo brain surgery in 1996. Engravings of earlier patients undergoing treatment offer a grim reminder of the realities of a pre-anaesthetic age.
The exhibition contains two specially commissioned photographic essays by University of Portsmouth photography lecturer, Daniel Alexander, who visited the Charité hospital in Berlin which contains a museum for anatomical specimens and medical history. Taken on large format colour film, the pictures document a mode of collecting brains and the changing architectural setting in which they are housed.
Other sections include the measurement and classification of brains, and mapping and modelling them which follows the attempts to represent the anatomy of the brain, from early visualisations by artists in the 16th and 17th centuries to the latest kaleidoscopic ‘Brainbow’ images of nerve cells created by Jeff Lichtman and his team, the artistic drive to apprehend the complexities of the brain follow the increasing philosophical and medical understanding of its centrality to our being.
Brains: the mind as matter opens today and runs until 17 June 2012.