With real human specimens and contemporary art, the museum’s latest exhibition explores the enduring mystery of the human brain.
We often think about the brain in metaphorical terms. Our most complex organ is conceptualised as the “mind” or mixed up with explanations of character and personality. But what happens when we start thinking about the brain as an object? Something that can be put in a jar; dissected, prodded and poked at in name of scientific endeavour – or just brazen curiosity? The brain is the only tangible link we have to our memories and feelings, yet we’re quick to distance ourselves from its stodgy pink reality.
Brains: The Mind as Matter at MOSI presents the human brain as a physical thing. Featuring historical artefacts, medical specimens and work by contemporary artists, the exhibition explores scientific and cultural attempts to understand the brain. “Our guiding idea was to display objects that are visceral and concerned with the stuff of the brain,” says curator Marius Kwint. “We wanted to show how we turn it into different images or states; we’ve got dried brains, brains in jars and brains that are stained. It gives you an idea of the range of human activities to do with that.”
It’s a sobering return to humanity after the freeze-dried specimen in the previous cabinet
Brains in jars may sound like Frankenstein’s laboratory terrain – and with human brain specimens taken from inmates at Prestwich Asylum in the early 1900s, Brains isn’t afraid to venture there – but at its core, the exhibition smartly questions our fascination with defining and dissecting the human brain. The first section of the show, “Measuring/Classifying,” looks at the pseudo-scientific practice of phrenology; the idea that a person’s character type can be attributed to the size and shape of their brain. Nineteenth century “headspanner”s and William Bally’s collection of miniature deformed heads are eery enough, but the accompanying placard that states that the British Phrenological Society only disbanded in 1967 shows how new our understanding of the brain is. Elsewhere, Brains lives up to its slightly perfunctory title with a model of Einstein’s own grey matter and a piece of body snatcher William Burke’s brain. The development of neuroscience is also explored with a collection of satisfyingly gory cranial instruments from the 1700s (a cylindrical trephine is probably the most wince-inducing) and Nobel prize-winning scientist, Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s drawing of human brain tissue.
But Brains is most striking when it puts the brain back into body. Ania Dabrowska’s series of photographic portraits captures people who have decided to donate their brains to science. The amiable-looking pensioner “Mr Albert Webb,” wearing a hand-knitted jumper depicting his dog Lucy, is caught in the creases of laughing fit. A phone next to each of the portraits lets you listen to the interviews Dabrowska conducted with her subjects. Albert’s wife died of Alzheimer’s disease and he wants to do “a bit of good” – it’s a sobering return to humanity after the freeze-dried brain specimen in the previous cabinet.
Divided into four sections, Brains’ layout mimics the connecting synapses of a human brain and responds to MOSI’s former life as an industrial space. Originally staged at London events space, Wellcome Collection, the MOSI exhibition is bolstered by 38 Manchester additions, including a specially commissioned drawing by Salford-based artist, Daksha Patel. Made using goose fat on paper, Fat drawing depicts a ghost-like cross section of the human brain. “I liked the changing quality of the animal fat,” explains Patel. “It’s constantly changing, much like the brain itself. If you place yourself in a different environment, your brain will change.” Over time, the fat will change colour and seep into new shapes.
Whilst the inclusion of contemporary art work offers a reprieve to the disembodied specimens on display, Brains doesn’t brush over the less savoury aspects of medical history, or the horror of Nazi brain harvesting. The human brain is the most complex entity in the known universe; it follows that any response, whether artistic, historical or scientific, should be difficult. MOSI, Liverpool Road, Castlefield, M3 4FP, 10am-5pm daily, all weekend (26 Jul-4 Jan 2014), free.