Museum of the Week #4.2

In contrast to Animal Inside Out, Brains at the Wellcome Collection is a very academic exhibition. The text is smaller, more extensive, and more technical. But they can get away with this because they don’t have to cater for children – Brains is aimed at those aged 14 or over, and they hand out cards at the entrance warning viewers that the exhibition contains sensitive and potentially disturbing materials (not only are there real human brains in jars, but there are also videos featuring surgery). Apparently they have had a few fainters, which may explain why two of the video screens weren’t working when I visited – there are notices on the screens saying they are out of order, but I suspect they may have been taken off because they were too upsetting for some members of the audience.

I don’t have problems with fainting, so I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition. The historical information on the study of brains, and how our knowledge of the working of the brain has developed over time, was fascinating – and I was particularly pleased to see some 19th century wax teaching models of brains from the collection of Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum (just because I used to work there and I have an abiding love for their collections!). The academic tone is softened by a section at the end of the exhibition discussing brain donation and harvesting, which is rather more emotive, as it includes photo portraits of people who have donated their brains to the Brain Research Trust (one of whom has subsequently died), and papers from a Nazi concentration camp in which the brains of children were harvested for research without the parents’ knowledge of consent. A model of Einstein’s brain is also included, along with a microscope slide section of his actual brain, although it is acknowledged in the text panel that Einstein did not want his brain to be removed after his death.

Unfortunately, I have spent so long writing (or not writing) this, that there are now only two days until the exhibition closes! But if you are in London and have time, I would strongly recommend it. I enjoyed it far more than I did Animal Inside Out; I found the academic tone of Brains engaging and the content fascinating, whereas I found myself feeling rather underwhelmed with the level of interpretation provided in Animal Inside Out, despite the superb production values and awe-inspiring specimens. But my preferences tend towards reading and facts, rather than just looking at things – Animal Inside Out provided lots to look at but little to read, while Brains was, to my mind, a much more successful exhibition because it offered both.

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