Brains @ The Wellcome Collection

I visited London’s Wellcome Collection for the first time a couple of months ago, and I think it’s already one of my favourite museums. It’s a wonderful conglomeration of two things I love: science and art. It’s a strange and eye-opening place, not too big, but perfectly contained.

Henry Wellcome, innovative pharmacist and businessman, was also a very keen (and rather obsessive) collector of all things medically-related. The collection housed in the museum is a cornucopia of historical artefacts, implements, paintings, photographs and sketches and all number of delightful curiosities. Here you’ll find shrunken heads, chastity belts, paintings of individuals with deformity and Chinese medicine dolls. I found it utterly fascinating.

Often seen as opposites, the second main exhibition  is a collaboration between the worlds of science and art. It houses a collections of pieces of art inspired by science, and science at its most artistic. Exhibits offer artistic interpretations on topics such as malaria, obesity and the genome project, and items such as a large glass sculpture of a virus, show the natural world in its beautiful intricacy.

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Box-model of the brain, used for teaching in mid-20th century

With this in mind, I’m very excited that the upcoming exhibition is on one of my favourite topics, Brains! The Wellcome say ‘Our major new free exhibition seeks to explore what humans have done to brains in the name of medical intervention, scientific enquiry, cultural meaning and technological change. Featuring over 150 artefacts including real brains, artworks, manuscripts, artefacts, videos  and photography, ‘Brains’ follows the long quest to manipulate and decipher the most unique and mysterious of human organs, whose secrets continue to confound and inspire.’

I shall be all over this. I expect there will be some items like kits for trepanning, old fashioned brain-maps and a few obligatory brains-in-jars. Quite excited. It’s on from the 29th March – 17th June, I shall report back when I’ve actually gone. In the meantime, they have this nifty game on the website where you can grow your own neuron cell (and compete against a mean rival neuron who keeps getting in your way). It’s pretty distracting.

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Mysteries of the abandoned brain lab

I already posted a link to this on twitter but I felt it warranted a little more attention. I don’t think I’m mentioned this before but I am an enthusiastic (though quite inexperienced) urbex-er. Urbex is short for ‘urban exploration’ and usually refers  to going and exploring derelict locations. As someone with a passion for mental health and medical paraphernalia, I particularly enjoy seeing old hospitals. In the UK, following the outcry at the exposed behaviour going on in the old asylums, many of them were quickly closed. Often the buildings still stand, boarded up from the public, holding strange pieces of memories of what they used to be. They stand as a monument of where medicine and psychiatry has come from. The crumbling walls, peeling pain and left-behind objects tell a silent story.

The below photos are of a Moscow brain laboratory, seemingly left in a hurry and abandoned since. Aged specimens lie out on the side, waiting to be inspected, amongst discarded coffee cups and magazines. You can only wonder what the story is here.

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More here.

Quest To See Inside My Head – Getting my brain scanned

I would really like to have my brain scanned. As someone with a big interest in psychology and neuroscience, I think seeing what’s inside my skull would pull everything together, put it into context, make it real.

It’s not that I don’t believe it’s in there, but sometimes it feels somewhat distant, the colour-coded textbook diagrams, the plastic models, you wonder ‘Is that really going on, inside MY body?’ I think a small part of me holds the irrational belief that inside me is just space, or machine cogs. All those instricate processes that I learned about in biology lessons, that can’t all be really going on. I get a strange enjoyment from seeing the outline of bones, blood vessels, tendons, and feeling like I’m getting a glimpse of the workings of this human machine. It does feel strange that it’s all happening, it’s such a part of me, yet I’m often so oblivious to it.

I took an open unit in anatomy at university and for one of our first dissection classes we formed groups and were given a cat’s head, instructed to remove the brain. So we did. And then it sat there, this little mound of grey putty, so fragile, on the sterile table surface. I’d never seen a real brain before, and all the diagrams and photos, it didn’t really prepare me for how flimsy and squishy it seemed, so easily damaged. And how all the different lobes, the cranial nerves, which I’d learnt to identify and label so particularly, they all looked the same, all rolled together into this bundle of grey mush. It seemed no wonder that a quick jolt to the head can do so much damage, when the skulls’s so hard and the brain’s so delicate. It seemed amazing that people don’t damage their brains more than they do already.

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