Real Voices interview: Dr Marius Kwint
Cultural historian and curator of Wellcome Collection’s ‘Brains’ exhibition
What do you do?
I’m a cultural historian with particular interests in the relationship between art, science and visual culture. I study changing attitudes to the world: how culture changes over time and in different places. I lecture at the University of Portsmouth.
Why does it interest you?
I have always been aware of cultural differences because I have an international background. I think that multiculturalism is something that people should value. Different cultural influences and backgrounds, far from being a burden, are intellectually enriching and enhance your curiosity about the world and your sense of possibility.
How did you become a cultural historian?
I did a degree in cultural history at Aberdeen University. It was an interdisciplinary degree, and Scottish universities allow you to do a mixture of subjects in the first couple of years, so I studied a combination of science, the arts and the social sciences. My A levels weren’t all that promising, but I knuckled down for my degree (it really interested me and it was a new, experimental course), so I did pretty well and managed to get a grant to do a PhD at Oxford, or a DPhil as they call it there. That can be used as an entry point into an academic, teaching and research career – so that’s what I did.
How did you get involved with the ‘Brains’ exhibition?
I was invited by the senior curator of Wellcome Collection, James Peto, and the Head of Public Programmes at Wellcome, Ken Arnold, to guest curate it. My interest in the brain stems from an exhibition that I worked on in 2005 in Zurich. The exhibition was on branching forms – anything that has a tree shape that isn’t actually a tree. It’s seen most clearly in a brain cell, which has a tree shape that enables it to communicate with other parts of the brain. I co-wrote a paper with a neuroscientist, Richard Wingate, on that subject. That helped give me a bit of understanding of the nature of brain anatomy.
What was the exhibition about?
The exhibition explored not so much what the brain is or what it does, but rather ‘what we do to it’. I wanted to focus on things that only an exhibition could show: objects and images. We concentrated on collecting brain matter, which has been central to brain science since the 18th century, when preservation techniques (ie pickling body parts in alcohol or formaldehyde) were developed.
What problems did you face?
We had to consider the ethics of exhibiting human specimens and also the human tissue regulations, which govern what you can and can’t display to the public. But Wellcome Collection has a human tissue authority licence, and Jane Holmes (the exhibition manager) has a lot of experience in these matters. She made sure that the specimens were properly handled and complied with ethical requirements to protect the anonymity of subjects. All the brains we showed had been collected a long time ago, in some cases more than 100 years before.
Why did you include artworks?
The combination of artistic interpretation and science is to a large extent Wellcome Collection’s ‘trademark’. Artists are able to take imagery that is merely functional from a scientific point of view (say, diagnostic medical imagery) and humanise it. They turn it into a reflection on what it means to be human or what it means to suffer illness of a particular kind, or on how technology affects how we see ourselves.
Why are brains so fascinating?
We live in an era in which neuroscience is to some extent regarded as a panacea, or cure-all. It’s being used to research all kinds of things: mental illness, behavioural difficulties, and problems that may sometimes be largely social in origin. Neuroscience is attempting to give these a material, objective explanation. More and more, we are living in ‘neurocentric’ times; the central nervous system is seen as the key to understanding who we are.
Who would you swap brains with?
Mary Shelley. She had tremendous experiences and an extraordinary imagination and was able to say so many interesting things about science in her novel ‘Frankenstein’.