January 21, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Brains: The Mind as Matter

Wellcome Collection, Euston Road, London
29 March 2012 – 17 June 2012

After my interest in intelligence was awakened by Horizon: the Hunt for AI, I decided to take a break from studying in the library at the Wellcome Trust and explore their temporary exhibition space by visiting Brains: The Mind as Matter. Having been less than impressed with Miracles and Charms back in January, Brains was a much more engaging, emotive and enlightening experience.

The exhibition fills a cavernous room, perfect for escaping the crowds or a moment of quiet reflection, and is divided into four sections. These separate the exhibition into four distinct ways of thinking about the brain: measuring/classifying, mapping/modeling, cutting/treating and the contentious giving/taking. These oppositions set up a provocative examination of past and present thoughts on the brain and its place in society.

Using the Wellcome Collection trademark of mixing science and art, preserved brains sit unabashed next to contemporary photography and sculpture. Some of the most striking images aim to tackle taboos about the brain and its potential: portraits of future brain donors, as well as Corinne Day’s heart-breaking self-portraits chronicling her treatment for brain cancer.

The exhibition also tackles the history of studying the brain, from the dubiously motivated to the modern day. 19th century phrenology and Nazi eugenics are juxtaposed with modern day dissection techniques, in an insightful video which lead to one of the best mother-son exchanges I’ve ever heard in a museum: ‘Look Henry, those people are cutting a brain in half!’.

Brains is a fascinating study into the most complex organ in our body. How we have explored and exploited it makes for an intriguing experience. Go along and see for yourself at the Wellcome Collection until 17 June.

Image: Box model of the brain, mid 20th Century, University of Aberdeen via The Arts Desk