Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime exhibition – blurs scientific interest with grotesque curiosity

Like a bullet to the brain? See one here in detail

glass brain

Review "Within minutes of death, adult female blowflies arrive to lay eggs on a cadaver". So reads one of the captions at the Wellcome Collection's magnificently macabre: Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime exhibition.

Morbid titillation, however, isn't the intent. The point is that forensic scientists can pinpoint the time of death by measuring the gestation period of the blowflies' larvae.

This technique of using maggots was featured in the first successful use of entomological evidence (from the study of insects) in the UK – when they were discovered on decaying human remains dumped in a small ravine in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, in September 1935.

It's one of many images that linger in the imagination after leaving this disturbing, must-see exhibition exploring the history, science and art of forensic medicine.

Original evidence, archival material, photographic documentation, film footage, forensic specimens, and artworks all feature.

Blood Spatter Attempt from Album of Criminology, 1937.

Dollhouse crime scenes, or "nutshell studies" of unexplained deaths adorn the walls of the first room – as does one of the models, which acts as a "gods-eye view" diorama for investigators looking to connect the pieces of the crime scene jigsaw.

These images of tiny toy-like figures draped across murderous domestic settings wouldn't look out of place in a modern art gallery, no doubt accompanied with some blurb about the "unreal entertainment-culture" that depicts murder as "just another consumable commodity". Or something to that affect.

In fact, you could easily picture not-so-Young British Artist Damien Hirst showcasing an event like this and charging several million for the items on display.

But most of the objects, while compelling to observe, also serve some forensic purpose either practically, or as a study.

The next room examines the historical context of the morgue, which comes from the French word morguer "to peer". Visitors are invited to scroll through index cards of post mortem examinations, and in the middle of the space sits a dissection slab autopsy table.

Postcard of French women gazing into a morgue

Artistic: A contemporary French postcard shows women gazing into a morgue

Another explores the process of weighing up forensic evidence in court. Newspaper sketches of the Dr Crippen trial hang from one wall – with beautifully drawn vignettes detailing moments such as a fainting jury member.

Given the subject matter, all the exhibits by their nature prompt a visceral response. But sometimes the line between scientific interest and grotesque curiosity blurs.

Bullet-damaged brain in a jar

For example, one exhibit (pictured left) features a cross section of a brain with a bullet hole, with the accompanying bullet from the 1960s; a punctured liver next to a knife; and a section of a fractured skull having been bludgeoned with a blunt object. It's hard not to stare in fixed, fascinated horror, but I'm not sure how edifying it is.

Squeamishness aside, there's no denying the breadth and research that has gone into Forensics – which comes off the back of a £17.5m development at the collection.

As with much of the permanent displays, it's often hard to define the theme of exhibits under one category. And the Wellcome Collection is peerless in its ability to make the medical "visual", to the extent that it probably annoys some die-hard boffins for being too "arty".

But I'd defy any one not to be swept up by the energy of its latest effort, showing that there are no flies on this collection. ®

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime exhibit at the Wellcome Collection in London runs until 21 June 2015.




Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2018