‘Forensics: The anatomy of crime’
The opening of ‘Forensics: The anatomy of crime’ celebrates the completion of a £17.5 million refurbishment and expansion at Wellcome Collection, Euston Road. It includes a stunning dynamic oval staircase which immediately grabs your attention on entering the venue; this then takes you up three floors to the various galleries and the stunningly beautiful Reading Room that is really worth a visit.
But on to ‘Forensics’…as you enter the exhibition, the first area is ‘The Crime Scene’; it’s gloomy, with eerie music playing in the background (the kind from horror films!). A curious looking section of tiled floor is situated in the middle of the room and, upon closer inspection, we learn it is a murder scene, where artist Teresa Margolles’ friend was tragically killed.
On the adjacent wall is a series of pictures by artist Angela Strassheim. The marks left by blood at a murder scene are shown up by UV, despite it being deep-cleaned, representing the everlasting mark of the atrocity that took place there. Just around the corner is Sally Mann’s portrait of open air ‘body farms’ in Tennessee. Here bodies are placed in various different outdoor environments and the levels of decomposition are studied. It was at this point, whilst staring at this photograph, that I realised the only time I had seen a dead body was on television or in films…but this was real. It was disturbing, but I felt a morbid fascination.
We then moved into ‘The Morgue’, which feels immediately more clinical than the other rooms. An Edwardian porcelain dissecting table stands proud in the corner, surrounded by illustrations of damaged human remains and a cross section of liver showing a stab wound with the weapon next to it. Oh and let’s not forget the brain with a bullet hole and numerous post-mortem tools.
‘The Laboratory’ explores fingerprinting, DNA analysis and classification techniques. This includes early mug shots, showing individuals with their hands held in front of them to document any distinguishing marks or missing fingers. This room also details stories of murders by poison and how techniques of blood and poison analysis were used to convict the criminals.
Our journey continues with an exploration of missing people. A morgue fridge looms menacingly in the middle of this room; inside it is colder, with a looping video of forensic evidence playing; it’s not somewhere you would want to linger for too long. Nevertheless what stuck with me most from this room was a case study of facial reconstruction of ‘Mrs. Ruxton’. The display shows photos of her when she was alive which were superimposed over pictures of her corpse in order to identify facial features. Next to these pictures lies the can opener supposedly used by her husband, a doctor, to murder and expertly disfigure her and her maid. Gruesome.
‘The Courtroom’ brings together the disciplines of law and science, documenting how forensic evidence is used to convict criminals. It’s a fascinating look at sensational cases such as the conviction of Dr. Crippen and pathologist Bernard Spillsbury’s notecards. Spillsbury’s conviction of the ‘Naughty Doctor’ was controversially disputed in 2007 after forensic scientist David Foran claimed the remains were that of a man, not those of his wife Cora.
Taryn Simon’s photographs of wrongly convicted people, in locations which were pivotal to their arrests, complete this engrossing exhibition. These images highlight the fragility and uncertainty of life and of forensics itself which is an ever-evolving science and as history shows, not infallible.
Edmond Locard’s theory that ‘every contact leaves a trace’ guides forensic science but also describes perfectly the effect that this exhibition will have on you. It certainly left its mark on me. As my friend Sarah commented, ‘It makes me feel…funny’ and she’s right; it lingers long after you’ve left the building, sticking to your skin and your thoughts.
Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes at Wellcome Collection, gave a small speech during our visit, describing the exhibition as ‘both familiar and disquieting’, which is true. We are so used to seeing these images on TV programmes – I’m a big fan of Silent Witness – and in films that we have become almost desensitised. ‘Forensics’ makes it human once more and it is deeply affecting.
I could write forever about each single exhibit in ‘Forensics’ but I wouldn’t want to ruin the journey of discovery it takes you on or provide too many spoilers. Just make sure you go and experience it for yourself.
Forensics: The anatomy of crime is a free exhibition, open now until 21 June 2015 at Wellcome Collection, Euston Road.