Forensics: The Anatomy Of Crime At Wellcome Collection
Londonist Rating: ★★★★★
If a body is zipped up in a suitcase, will the flies still get to it?
This could only be a Wellcome Collection exhibition. Uncomfortable questions and bodyshock displays abound, but are made palatable by careful presentation and explanation. One early case introduces us to this:
It's a maggot extracted from the body of a murder victim in the 1930s. Pathologists were able to work out the rough time of death from the developmental stage of the larva, and thus help bring a prosecution. What at first seems like a bilious exhibit assumes great importance when placed in the context of forensic science.
So it is with many of the displays here. Representations and relics of violent death are everywhere, but all are treated sensitively and soberly. The viewer adopts the mindset of a pathologist: we are compelled to look upon disturbing sights, but shown how to do so dispassionately and objectively; to learn from what we see.
That said, our first instinct on entering the exhibition was to smile in bemusement. Before us stood a set of amiable little dolls' houses. What could these possibly have to do with forensics? A closer look reveals more:
These brutal dioramas are known as 'nutshell studies' — miniaturised bloodbaths used to train criminologists in the art of observation. These tableaux open the first section of the exhibition, themed around the murder scene and how forensics teams gather clues to help unravel the sequence of events. The most in-demand cabinet here contains items from the Jack the Ripper investigation, including the camera used to photograph final victim Mary Jane Kelly.
The next room moves on to examine forensics in the morgue. It includes a post-mortem table, a brain slice with bullet trace and the squelchy soundtrack to an actual autopsy. Be sure to watch the videos throughout this exhibition. All are excellent, including an introduction to cadaver work from pathologist (and Londonist Out Loud alumnus) Carla Valentine, and an insect specialist with the surprising answer to the suitcase question we posed at the top of this piece.
Two further rooms tackle forensics in the laboratory — including the development of fingerprint and DNA technology — and how science can help uncover evidence in cases of genocide or missing persons. The final room displays the thrills and Spilsburys of courtroom evidence. This includes an excellent section on the Dr Crippen case, whose guilt was recently questioned through modern DNA analysis.
This is the most coherent and absorbing exhibition Wellcome Collection has mounted in a long time, which is high praise given its own impeccable standards. The five sections are paced to perfection — it takes about 15 minutes to properly examine each room. All the items are carefully chosen and clearly described.
More than anything, the show reaches a new height in pairing scientific exhibits with complementary art and photography (an old trick at the Wellcome Collection). Art and artefact blend and blur, to the point where even the wooden partitions seem complicit in the storytelling. Masterful.
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime is on at Wellcome Collection until 21 June 2015. Entrance is free.
While there, you can also view Wellcome Collection's Institute of Sexology exhibition.
Last Updated 04 March 2015