The darker side of science: “Forensics” at the Wellcome Collection

forensics entrance-2I know that I am not alone in being fascinated by crime and death. From Sherlock Holmes to Poirot, and more recently to the many incarnations of CSI and The Killing, crime and death have inspired a wealth of fiction in the form of literature, TV and film.

It is this fascination that the new Wellcome Collection exhibition “Forensics: The anatomy of crime” taps into, aiming to display the intricate relationship between science and the law. In a suitably dark and eerie space, visitors are invited to explore the journey of solving a crime case, from examining the crime scene to analysing evidence in the laboratory and testifying in court. Each of the different rooms, representing the different stages of this journey (the crime scene, the morgue, the laboratory, the search, the courtroom), tells the story of how forensic science has evolved since the 17th century, through historical artefacts, popular culture references, art and cutting edge science.

There is certainly a sense that the many branches of forensic science, including entomology, fingerprinting, pathology and anthropology, have now taken the centre stage in solving crime cases. Particularly intriguing was forensic entomology, a discipline I am not ashamed to admit I am aware of because of CSI’s charismatic Gil Grissom, which now exploits new technologies such as thermal imaging to help define when a victim was murdered. Similarly, new technologies have revolutionized forensic pathology, with virtual autopsies based on MRI and CT scans now being used alongside the traditional kind, for instance to identify the size of murder weapons.

Despite this, I felt a little disappointed with the level of contemporary science presented in “the laboratory” room; although DNA fingerprinting was featured, it seemed to me that the discussion of how this works could have been more extensive. And surely toxicology and ballistics have progressed in the past 50 years?

Science aside, however, the real strength of this exhibition for me is the art that accompanies it. Real police photos are placed side by side with artists’ images, blurring the lines between reality and fiction and exploiting our voyeuristic nature. A recording of a real autopsy, strategically placed alongside a historic morgue table, emphasizes the gruesome nature of this process through sound.

But most prominently, art is used to raise political and ethical questions relating to forensic science. Notable examples are the specially commissioned artwork by Šejla Kamerić, “Ab uno disce omnes“, which explores the role forensics played in identifying victims of massacre in Bosnia after the war, and photography by Taryn Simon, “The Innocents“, which is inspired by The Innocence Project, a not-for-profit initiative that uses DNA analysis to overturn wrongful convictions. In both cases, the power of scientific progress and the positive impact science can have in society are truly evident.

“Forensics: The anatomy of crime” runs until 21 June 2015 at the Wellcome Collection and is accompanied by live events, including discussions of the portrayal of science in popular culture and what counts as evidence in the courtroom.

Rachel David is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Image: Neil Stoker


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