Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Visiting "Brains. The Mind as Matter" at the Wellcome Collection

Collecting brains for scientific study started at the end of the 18th century and became common practice in the 19th and 20th century. Although the brains were first gathered in medical faculties, soon these collections were also available in museums for the general public to see. The general public gathered with amazement to observe human brains for the first time. 

Until the 17th of June Londoners have the opportunity of visiting the exhibition The Wellcome Collection "Brains. The Mind as Matter" an approach to the brain as a physical entity, allowing the visitor to learn how this viscera is collected, classified, stored and treated. 

The amazement that the encounter with the human brain provoked in the 19th century citizen is still present today, as the exhibition "Brains. The Mind as Matter" has attracted the most visitors per day of any exhibition so far held at The Wellcome Collection.  

The curators Marius Kwint (University of Postsmouth) and Lucy Shanahan (Wellcome Collection) have gathered an impressive collection of objects from human brains and surgical instruments used to study the brain, to historical manuscripts and artwork, all of which help to contextualize and tell the story of those individuals who's brains have been part of the history and progress of neuroscience. The main characters of these stories are not just the scientists or neurosurgeons but also the patients, the brain donors and their families.

As a neuroscientist visiting the exhibit feels a bit bizarre, although it is flooded with familiar objects and images, the perspective is so different as if the brain was completely new, as if it were a stranger. As neuroscience PhD student Benjamin Towse says “It’s about the practice of neuroscience more than it is about neuroscience itself", or how the curator Marious Kwint defines it "this exhibition is not about what the brain does for us, but what we do to the brain". 

With 150 objects displayed in the exhibition, including all of them would require a dedicated post in itself. Here is a brief summary to give you at taste of the exhibition, but the nothing would substitute the experience of visiting it for yourself.

Brainbow  Jean Livet, Joshua R Sanes and Jef Lichtman 2007 Digital photograph.
Living neurons altered to express fluorescent proteins from genes taken from coral and jellyfish.
 Image posted with permission from The Wellcome Collection. 

Lucy Shanahan curator of the Wellcome Trust goes through the exhibition with us today:

In this exhibit there is no information about brain function. Why mind as matter?

"We are not doing a straight science exhibition. We are more interested in giving it a cultural and a historical context. Looking at the brain from a humanistic point of view" Lucy explains. 

What was the idea behind this exhibition? 

"It was an idea that had been circulating for some time. Initially there was a particular fascination with the idea of having a series of famous brains on display, such as Einstein's. We even considered requesting Lenin's brain, but we were unable to pursue it in the end".

"The idea started to evolve from that initial concept when Marius Kwint was invited to start researching the project further. He began by visiting brain collections in the US at Cornell University and the Cushing Centre in Yale and subsequently travelled to brain collections in Europe in particular Germany. I think he was particularly struck by the vision of so many brains in the same room, which inspired him to explore the motivations behind collecting brains and to consider whether these motivations have changed over the last century. As a result, the scope of the exhibit started to broaden" says Lucy.

Photograph of the cellars of the Charité hospital in Berlin. Photograph taken by Daniel Alexander, 2011.
 Image posted with permission from The Wellcome Collection.

The reason behind collecting brains was to find some type of correlation between talent or intellectual capacity and the size and structure of the brain. A systematic postmortem study of the brains of geniuses but also criminals, mentally retarded or pathological started in Europe in the 19th century. The brains were weighed, convolutions and gyri measured, cerebral lobes compared.  In Russia, the brains of the most talented were collected such as the creator of the periodic table Mendeleev, the writer Turgenev, the neuroanatomist Betz or the musician and conductor Rubinstein. In USA, the most notorious brain collected for scientific study was Einstein's brain.  

Preserved brain of Helen H Gardner, writer, civil servant and suffragist who died in 1925.
Wilder Brain Collection Cornell University.
Image posted with permission from The Wellcome  Collection. 

As appealing as the idea of finding a neuroanatomical substrate for talent might be, none has really been found. Although some studies report to have found slight cytoarchitectonical differences in certain cortical areas of the brains of more gifted individuals, yet these studies have not been conclusive. There are no specific qualities that the brains of the gifted seem to have when compared to others.

However, it has been the pathological and injured brains which have provided a better understanding of how the brain works. One of the most famous and recent cases of postmortem study has been the brain of Henry Molaison (patient H.M.) who's case of memory impairment has been key to understanding   memory function. To find out more about the case of H.M click here: H.M. patient

In the exhibition "Brains: The Mind as Matter" visitors have the chance to see samples of Einstein's brain and a video of the H.M's brain being cryoprotected and sliced for neuroanatomical study.

Image by Hellen Pynor “Headache”.

"We chose this piece by Helen Pynor as our lead image because it encapsulated perfectly well the theme of the exhibition: it confronted us with  brain as a visceral object, but also with it's ethereal beauty" says Lucy. 

Headache (detail) by Helen Pynor, 2008.
Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art
Have you had the chance of seeing a craniotomy in real life? 

"Not this time, but in the past for a prevoius exhibit about the heart, the team had the chance to see a live heart surgery as part of the research process. We certainly do not shy away for putting ourselves in the forefront to gather information and conduct research for our exhibitions.

In the last section of the exhibition "Giving/Taking" there is a film called "Brain Bank" which was shot at Hammersmith Hospital in London, where several colleagues had the opportunity to observe the brain being sliced for the Imperial College Tissue Bank. The film provides a unique window for visitors who may never have the chance to see something like that for themselves". 

"A number of artists also attended these dissection sessions, on various occasions, such as David Marron, who made the piece of work seen alongside the "Brain Bank" film, in response to his own visit and makes fantastic analogies with the brain and other organic materials such as a walnut, a raw chicken, or a is curious how easy it is to oscillate between seeing the brain as something quintessentially human and then as something completely inanimate". 

"Nervous Tissue Note Panel" by David Marron, 2010.
Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art 

Preserving brain tissue

It wasn't until the 18th century, when proper preservation techniques were developed, that the brain could be successfully collected and stored for study. There are very few brain samples prior to this time.

"One of the things that I found particularly interesting is that the brain is not naturally solid. There is a wonderful photograph taken at the Cambridge University Brain Bank which is a remarkable view of the real material quality of the brain which is surprisingly gelatinous, not like the perfect form that holds it's shape within the confines of our skulls. Once it is removed, it becomes flabby and flaccid, slightly resembling a squid! This was a real revelation. Brains deteriorate very quickly and they are  difficult to dissect as a result of their jelly-like texture - hence the need to preserve and solidify the specimens".  

"Unusually, there is an early Egyptian brain on display" Lucy points out. "The ancient Egyptians considered the brain to be irrelevant after death, os it is extremely rare to have come across one that has been preserved. Normally they discarded the brain but preserved other viscera like the heart.".  

Cerebral hemisphere of an ancient Egyptian brain (2010 BCE)  Dry Specimen.
Hunterian Museum Royal College of Surgeons of England, London.
 Image posted with the permission of the Wellcome Collection.

Ancient egyptians must have found some form of managing tissue fixation to preserve internal organs during the mummification process. According to the book "Brains. The Mind over Matter" this mummified brain was found in a burial ground of the Dynasty XI in the temple of Mentuhotep II at Deir el-Bahari. 
How did you find the artwork related to the brain? How did you choose the artwork? 

"All of the artists featured in the exhibition have had a very close personal relationship to the subject either through their own experiences, that of a family member or other individuals with whom they have built a real relationship through involving them in their work. There is nothing arbitrary in the selection of artists in the exhibition, nobody's work is here just because it happens to have a brain in it, there is a very poignant story behind each piece. 

We were already aware of the work of several artists who have been working with this topic for many years. We learnt about the work of several other artists through a private gallery called GV Art London, which holds a license to display human tissue.

For example, the work of Helen Pynor has been recently exhibited there and a number of artists whose work share a common interest in the intersection of "Where science meets art".  

To find more about the GV Art London exhibitions about Art and Neuroscience, there is an interesting article in Arts Magazine

What did the artists say?

"The artists were very happy to have their work juxtaposed with real brains, providing the perfect context for their work".   

Artist Katharine Dowson created this work inspired by the successful laser treatment of her cousin's cerebral arteriovenous malformation.

"Memory of a Brain Malformation" by Katharine Dowson, 2006 Laser-etched lead crystal glass
Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

Comparative neuroanatomy

"We were tempted to include more animal brains but in the end chose a select few. The model of the alligator brain is a great example of how well the brain fits the relative shape and size of the skull. We also have on display the left hemisphere from the brain of a female bottle nose dolphin, which is interesting because it is considered to be quite similar to the human brain. although it has very specific features including a large cerebellum and impressive, highly intricate, convolutions" Lucy explains.

Wax model with wooden handle of an alligator brain. Ziegler studio 1887.
 Image posted with permission of the Wellcome Trust Collection.  

Brain donation 

Neuroscience relies on the generosity of the people who volunteer to donate their brains for research. This process is usually anonymous, which makes donation specially altruistic. The lack of contact between scientists and donors might be one of the reasons why scientists tend to impose a great emotional distance when studying human tissue. The work done by Ania Davrowska and Browyn Parry in "Mind Over Matter" is especially moving, as it approaches brain donation from the donor's point of view. It is a fantastic work as many people don't consider the possibility of donating their brains unless they are asked and the project also helps scientists to gain some perspective. 

The stories and faces behind brain donation are fascinating and touching.  Two of the brain donors involved in this project - Albert Webb and Eddie Holden - have had close relationship with people who have suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Mr Albert Webb was a soldier during the Second World War, he fought in Naples, where he developed a great passion for opera. His wife suffered from Alzheimer's disease and this encouraged him to donate his brain "I shall be doing a bit of good perhaps to somebody". 

Mr Eddie Holden volunteered as a soldier in the Parachute Regiment, and participated in the liberation of war prisoners in Japan. He donates his brain in the hope it will help finding a treatment for Alzheimer's disease "Losing memory, where you are, not knowing who you are, is a terrible thing".  

Mr Albert Webb.
Photograph from the  project "Mind Over Matter: The Brain Donors"
by Ania Drabrowska, 2008-2011.
Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

Mr Eddie Holden.
Photograph from the project "Mind Over Matter: The Brain Donors"
by Ania Drabrowska, 2008-2011.
Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

After seeing the exhibition, do you think visitors would consider donating their brains to science?

"It was certainly a message that I hoped visitors would take away from this exhibition, though each person might have a different reaction  [...] When you are curating an exhibition in your mind there is a narrative that you are trying to convey and you hope others will have the same understanding of the story you have set out to tell, but of course each person is going to encounter it slightly differently". 

What has been the public response to the exhibition? 

"We have been overwhelmed by the public's reaction and interest. It's probably the most overtly medical exhibit we ever produced and it shows that there is an appetite for very graphic and visceral matterial. However, confronting a real brain in a jar is quite a different experience to seeing a brain on television". 

"In one of the first press interviews we organised for the BBC Radio Four, there was an interesting dialogue between Marius Kwint and a neuroscientist about how much we still don't understand about the brain. Although much has been learned over the past 500 years, there is still a lot that remains a mystery".

Ganglionic cells of the trigeminal nucleus of the mouse. Microscope slide by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, 1900. Photograph by Virginia García Marín. Cajal Legacy, Instituto Cajal (CSIC), Madrid.
Image posted with permission from The Wellcome Collection. 

Interview with the tour guides that work in the Wellcome Trust Collection

Aishling Holdbrooke and Steve Britt are tour guides in the Wellcome Trust Collection, they are the ones who are in close contact with the visitor of the exhibitions. Here they talk about their experience with the public. 

What type of preparation do the tour guides have before an exhibition? 

"Usually we have a month of preparation, we meet the curator of the exhibit. In case of this particular exhibition we had the chance of visiting the Wellcome Trust Image Centre and I had the opportunity to participate in an fMRI study and see my own brains"says Steve. 

Is there a particular element that people are more interested in?

"It is varied: the video of the craniotomy,  the piece of Einstein's brain, the fact that there is a shortage of brains for current research... " Steve points put. 
"Scan" by Nina Sellars, 2012.

Image courtesy of the artist and GV Art

The Nina Sellars artwork provides visitors who have a smart phone with the chance to scan a QR (quick response) code to view online images of her MRI scanned brain. Aishling explained the work by Nina Sellars and helped me scan the QR for the curious neuron readers to access.  

What type of questions do people usually ask? 

"Usually people like to share their experience, if they or members of their families have had neurosurgery. The public is very interested in this subject, they ask questions about neuroanatomy and brain function" says Steve.  

What type of visitors come to see the exhibitions in the Wellcome Trust Collection? 

"In the past it was mainly young professionals, a lot of artists. Since we are located next to University College London and to a big hospital (UCLH) we also had scientists and doctors visiting. This has changed, now our public is very wide, and the profile is variable".  

"At the weekends it gets so crowded people have to wait outside in the street. We were not expecting so many people" says Steve. 

This exhibition will be running until the 17th of June, I encourage scientists and non-scientists to take the opportunity of experiencing an encounter with the human brain. This might be an exhibition you will never forget.

From the 19th of June until the 16th of October The Wellcome Collection will be showing "Superhuman" an exhibit about the different ways humans have been able to adapt, improve and enhance their bodies. From prosthetics to biotechnology, from science fiction to medicine. An exciting approach that combines artwork, medicine and history. Don't miss it!

I would like to thank Aishling Holdbrooke, Steve Britt, Alasdair McCartney and Tim Morley. I would like to specially thank Lucy Shanahan for her time, for her tailored tour through the exhibition and for answering my questions. Without them this post wouldn't have been published.


Vein AA, Maat-Schieman ML "Famous Russian brains: historical attempts to understand intelligence" Brain 2008 Feb 131:583-90.

Marius Kwint and Richard Wingate Brains. The Mind as Matter London: Wellcome Collection; 2012


  1. Amazing. I really wish I would have been able to get to London to see this before the exhibit closes!

  2. Great post, interesting to hear the inside story on this (which I didn't manage to visit sadly.) I remember another Wellcome exhibition I went to some time ago, it had the human genome printed out in the form of a bookcase full of thick tomes, one per chromosome I think. Really brought home how big it is!

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