Wednesday 24th July saw the VIP launch party of the new ‘Brains:The Mind as Matter’ exhibition at Manchester Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI). I and a couple of colleagues were lucky enough to be invited to attend as ReAgent is a sponsor of the Museum.
On display for the first time outside London, this absorbing Wellcome Collection exhibition features many previously unseen artworks and objects which explore Manchester’s contribution to understanding the brain. The focus of the exhibition is not what brains do for us but rather what we have done to brains, whether in the name of medical intervention, scientific enquiry, cultural meaning or technological change.
After a short introduction from MOSI Director Jean Franczyk and a few inspiring words from Marius Kwint, guest curator of the Wellcome Collection’s Brains exhibition and co-curator Lucy Shanahan, the event was declared open and we were free to have a wander round, chat and mingle.
I must admit to having had a few reservations beforehand as I’m not the brainiest of people when it comes to understanding brains. I needn’t have worried as everything was beautifully displayed, clearly presented and in a format that was easy to understand.
Also, I’m not exactly squeamish but did wonder how I would cope with seeing real brains. The variety of objects being exhibited was fascinating and ranged from modern artworks and digital videos to ancient manuscripts and old surgical instruments including a skull saw with crank handle from 1901.
Although occupying a relatively compact space, the exhibition houses an astonishing array of artefacts, artworks, manuscripts, real brain images, video stills and photography which explore how humans have tried to come to terms with this highly complex organ.
For example, did you know that:-
- The brain is a unique and enigmatic organ
- The brain cannot be transplanted (although sci-fi and horror films would have us think otherwise)
- The brain is believed to be the most complex entity in the known universe
- A human brain has 100 billion nerve cells and 100 trillion neural connections (unbelievable but true!)
Human understanding of the brain and its functions has changed dramatically over centuries as we have sought to understand and classify the brain. Two thousand years ago, Aristotle thought that the brain was of lesser significance than the heart and liver and that its main function was for cooling the blood. By the Middle Ages the brain was widely believed to be the seat of memory and intellect.
Visitors can see William Macewen’s beautifully illustrated 1893 ‘Atlas of Head Sections’ which contains 53 copperplate engravings from his own photographs of frozen head sections. This remarkable document is reminiscent of modern day CT scans yet was published just before the dawn of the x ray.
Information can also be found on Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the first Spanish Nobel prize winner in 1906 for his pioneering work on studies of the brain who is widely regarded as the father of modern neuroscience.
You can watch a short documentary filmed at Hammersmith Hospital, in which donated human brains are dissected and stored in a tissue bank for research into neurological diseases.
The exhibition also presents ‘darker’ aspects of brain study that took place during the Third Reich. This area is sensitively handled although I found myself emotionally moved by some of the exhibits.
Between 2008 and 2011 a joint project between artist Anai Dabrowska and cultural geographer Bronwyn Parry entitled ‘Mind Over Matter:The Brain Donors’ presents a series of interviews and colourful photographs of individuals who have elected to donate their brains after death for research, particularly into neurodegenerative conditions such as Altzheimer’s disease.
However, my favourite exhibit of all is a stunning piece of artwork and one of the first things you see on entering the gallery. ‘Headache’ by artist Helen Pynor was created in 2008 and depicts a brain and spinal cord with the words ‘headache – press brown paper soaked in vinegar against the forehead’. This reminded me of the old nursery rhyme ‘Jack and Jill’ whose verses go like this (if you’re old enough to remember!):-
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after
Up Jack got and home did trot as fast as he could caper
Went to bed to mend his head with vinegar and brown paper
I would encourage anyone to go along to ‘Brains – The Mind As Matter’. It’s a fascinating exhibition which I found to be thought-provoking, moving, educational and inspiring in equal measure. Please don’t be put off by the subject matter – it really is brilliant!
If you have visited Wellcome Collection’s Brains exhibition in London and have any comments or thoughts about it we would love to hear from you.