Image of the human brain

Wellcome Collection’s guide to ‘Brains’

Danny Birchall gives us a guide to some of the most notable objects, drawings and photographs featured in Wellcome Collection’s ‘Brains’ exhibition

Wellcome Collection’s ‘Brains’, which ran from March to June 2012, was an exhibition about the material culture of brains in science. Rather than presenting a history of scientific advances in neuroscience, curators Marius Kwint and Lucy Shanahan explored what scientists had done to the brain in the name of understanding and enquiry.

Through its variety of objects and artistic, scientific and patient perspectives, ‘Brains’ invited us to take a very different look at our own grey matter: to consider our strangest and most intimate organ as an object that has been sliced and measured, collected and preserved, and dissected and examined, all as part of scientists’ quest to understand what really goes on inside.

On display were examples not only of what we might now consider scientific ignorance but also of how people took part in the collection and preservation of human brains themselves, which we would be less than comfortable with today.

‘Brains’ was divided into four major sections:

Measuring and Classifying

This section looked at attempts to understand where in the brain mental capacities such as speech and morality were located and how the brain itself might be measured as an indicator of human value or worth.

On display was eugenicist Francis Galton’s headspanner, one of many tools he used to measure the human body, and from which he drew conclusions about human evolution. The preserved brain of women’s rights campaigner Helen Hamilton Gardner was a poignant reminder of her struggle for recognition that womens brains were essentially the same as mens.

Mapping and Modelling

This section detailed historical representations and illustrations of the brain, from the pineal gland to the cellular building blocks of the brain.

Cutting and Treating

This section examined medical interventions in the brain, beginning with the ancient practice of trephination (trepanning), which sought to relieve maladies of the head by cutting away small portions of the skull, laying bare the brain beneath.

Coming right up to date, Terry Dagradis photograph of contemporary brain surgery showed the all the dramatic presence of a living brain under the surgeons knife.

Giving and Taking

This section showed how the brain has been understood as an object and a specimen. One of many artworks in the exhibition, a moving set of portraits by Ania Dabrowska showed donors who have decided to give their brains to science.

Martha Henson’s film ‘Dissecting Brains’ documented the clinical examination of donated brains at the Hammersmith Hospital in London, as they are separated and stored according to internationally agreed standards.

And Axon invites you to grow the central fibre of a brain cell (an axon) as long as you can, by responding to protein triggers and avoiding rival growing neurons. The game was developed in collaboration with a neuroscientist and is based on fetal development, as the very fabric of our brain is taking shape in the period before we are born.


Lead image:

Helen Pynor, ‘Headache’ (2008).

Courtesy of the artist and GV Art

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Inside the Brain’ in January 2013 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Neuroscience, Medicine, Health, infection and disease
Inside the Brain
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development