London: “Forensics” at the Wellcome Collection

In keeping with my new-found habit of visiting things right after they open to the public (so I can blog about them in a timely enough fashion that other people might still have the chance to visit them), I made my way up to Euston to see the new Forensics exhibit at the Wellcome less than a week after it opened (…but still waited a couple weeks to post about it.  Oh well, one step at a time, right?).  Not only is the exhibit new, but it marks the relaunch of the Wellcome’s ground floor exhibit space, which had been closed for years whilst they were revamping the museum.  I’ve missed the days when they had room to have more than one exhibition at once, so it’s good to see them fully up and running again!  Now, they have temporary exhibition space on both the ground and first floors, and the permanent collection up on the second floor (plus the same old cafe and excellent bookshop.  I could seriously spend hours in there browsing medical history books (or could do if they got some comfy seats, which is maybe why there are none)).

Anyway, back to “Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime.”  I have long had a complete fascination with the macabre, including historical serial killers (perhaps oddly, because of my complete inability to sit through a horror film without having nightmares for weeks – I blame my overactive imagination), so this exhibit was pretty perfect for me.  What was less perfect were the crowds that always seem to amass at the Wellcome; despite visiting at 11:30 on a Tuesday morning, the galleries were still uncomfortably full at points (though they hadn’t yet resorted to timed tickets).

This being the Wellcome, the same standard policies as always apply, so no photographs are allowed, and the exhibit is free, but they might have timed tickets in effect at busy times (as I’ve said, it’s busy all the time, but they probably save them for when it’s really horrendous, like weekends.  Seriously, don’t visit on a weekend unless there’s no way around it, and if you do, get there early).  I remember the old galleries as consisting of a few large spaces, while these newer ones seem to be divided into smaller rooms, but there’s more of them (of course, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the old galleries, so I could be wrong).  I’m not sure how this will affect traffic flow when things are really crowded, because it wasn’t a great system on a moderately busy day, but I guess time will tell.

This particular exhibit is divided up into various “rooms” dealing with the various aspects of solving a murder, so the sections included: the Crime Scene, the Morgue, the Laboratory, the Search, and the Courtroom (there is a very nicely put together accompanying free booklet available, which is really helping refresh my memory for this post).  Although many of the rooms had little grisly bits and pieces, the Crime Scene may have had the most graphic ones; crime scene photographs of people who’d had their brains battered out and smeared across the floor.  My favourite displays in this room were the (incongruously) rather cute “Nutshell Studies,” which are basically dollhouses for goths, in that they re-create crime scenes in miniature with the use of dolls.  I want one!

The Morgue was probably the most crowded room, as it was fairly small and had cases arrayed in rows up the room, without much space to manoeuvre, which led to having to step back awkwardly to let people pass when they’d finished looking at a case.  This section had some nice cross-sections of organs, as well as copies of old textbooks that described various injuries (including the famous “wound man” that I’ve seen in numerous old medical books, without knowing the official terminology for him.  Now I know it’s simply “wound man”).

The Laboratory got into the techniques that have been adopted to identify criminals and determine the cause of death, including Galton’s fingerprinting, Bertillon’s extensive work with classification, and Mathieu Orfila’s techniques for the detection of poisons (which are discussed at some length in Deborah Blum’s excellent Poisoner’s Handbook.  Just one of many disturbingly-titled books on my shelves, see below).  Speaking of my bookshelves, I was familiar with many of the crimes discussed here thanks to my copy of Murders of the Black Museum, a must-have for anyone with an interest in British crime (you’d probably be surprised/disturbed by how often I use it for reference), which goes into far more detail about them than the displays here did (although they were trying to cover so many different murders that it would have been difficult to provide more than an overview with the museum space available).

The Search was a very dark room (literally; there wasn’t much light.  Just thought I’d clarify given the subject matter) housing a number of videos, and a special exhibit within the exhibit; an art installation by Sejla Kameric that covered the Bosnian War (1992-1995), and seemed to involve a filmstrip playing inside a working mortuary fridge.  It was already full of people, so I didn’t have a chance to experience it, but I don’t think this would be your cup of tea if you’re at all claustrophobic, as that door really seemed to shut tightly.

The final room, the Courtroom, seemed to dwell mainly on Dr. Crippen (he of the extremely creepy eyes; so much so that I had to Sharpie in sunglasses over his picture in that Black Museum book, because it freaked me out to look at him, even though his crime wasn’t even that extreme, as far as murders go).

I wasn't joking.  I also gave him an improved moustache/beard combo.

I wasn’t joking. I also gave him an improved moustache/beard combo.

They had samples of what was alleged to be Belle’s hair (Belle Elmore was the stage name of Cora Crippen, his overbearing and perpetually nagging wife), crime scene photographs, and best of all, courtroom sketches from the trial.  Since I have another opportunity to talk about my personal library (see what I mean about this being the perfect exhibit for me?), I also have a book about the pathologist Bernard Spilsbury (and the bath-tub murderer, George Smith, who was also discussed in this exhibit…the book is called The Magnificent Spilsbury), which made some mention of how handsome he was, and the courtroom sketches seem to confirm this.  (Another historical crush for Jessica?)

The exhibit closed with a profile of three men who were wrongfully accused and eventually released from prison, which provided a sobering reminder that despite all the advances in technology, and the hard work of pathologists, sometimes they do still get things wrong.

However, the overwhelming impression I was left with was simply awe at how fascinating forensics is (maybe I made a mistake by not studying that at school, as I’m sure there are far more employment opportunities in that field than in, um, Early Modern History.  Realistically speaking though, science was never my strongest subject).  Prior to this exhibit, the last few things I’d seen at the Wellcome hadn’t been quite up to their usual high standards (the Institute of Sexology, for example), so I’m pleased to see that with the revamped museum space, they seem to have hit their stride again.  I really loved this exhibit, and whilst I thought more detail could have been provided on some of the murders, overall they did an excellent job.  4/5.


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