Brains: The Mind as Matter, The Wellcome Trust, London

Felicity Callard writes: A private view is not the best of times to take in the subtleties of an exhibition’s content. The private view of Brains: The Mind of Matter took place on 28 March. It was undoubtedly a fascinating affair, not least in the emphasis that Sir Mark Walport, Director of The Wellcome Trust, placed, in his introductory comments, on the ethical complexities — as well as importance — of displaying human remains (some of which had been acquired through horrifying means and in horrifying times).  And of course an exhibition on Brains warranted the requisite neuro-paraphernalia: we punters were delighted with the little bags of spongy sweets, which took the form of (turquoise and pinkish) human brains, and which were disbursed after the canapés (the Wellcome knows how to throw a good party).

But I found it hard to take in the full scope of the exhibition — and ended up, instead, largely engaged in informal ethnographic observation of the punters’ reactions to the work of my friend and collaborator Daniel Margulies (his and Chris Sharp’s: Untitled (The effect of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Kant’s 3rd Critique on the human brain: a functional magnetic resonance imaging approach), and of my friend and cultural geography colleague Bronwyn Parry (selections from her collaboration with artist Ania Dabrowska: Mind over Matter). Both works are exemplary in demonstrating the importance of aesthetics for any adequate conceptual engagement with and interrogation of the epistemological, social and ethical challenges of today’s brain sciences.

And so, given my overly narrow focus during my first sighting of the exhibition,  I returned a month later.  My partner and I were greeted by a long queue that snaked out of the exhibition, and which appeared to provide one more indicator of the seemingly unquenchable appetite for all things brain related. We were, noticeably, a duly sober crowd as we confronted the manifold ways in which the brain has been the object of acquisitive fervour, as well as of scientific and medical experimentation.  All those taut facial muscles amongst those pressed up against the old footage demonstrating different practices of ECT; the quiet absorption of figures on a bench listening, with headphones, to the voices of Parry’s and Dabrowska’s participants discussing the vicissitudes of memory, love and grief; the fascination with which both adults and children viewed a documentary that captured the ferocious focus and rhythm of anatomists at London’s Hammersmith Hospital dissecting donated brains.

And yet attending to the brain took place not only through the attitude of reverence. The brain’s materiality threatened, insistently, to divert the solemnity with which people whispered about the majesty of the brain’s capacities and complexity, and the deference with which they greeted specimens from Charles Babbage’s and Albert Einstein’s brain.  ‘My, don’t they look like pieces of tofu?’ said the women next to me, as they huddled over specimens from a neuropathology collection. My partner, meanwhile, reflected on the delicate pungency of fried brain, and lamented, well into the evening, how long it had been since she had tasted it.

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