Deathly days out: Forensics at the Wellcome Collection

Image: Wellcome Collection

Image: Wellcome Collection

How did the first crime scene investigators find clues? What can an autopsy tell us about a person’s last moments? If a body is stuffed into a suitcase, can maggots still get to it?

These questions and more are answered in a brilliantly morbid exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London (billed as the destination of choice for the “incurably curious”). Forensics: the Anatomy of Crime takes you on a journey over five rooms from crime scene to morgue, to laboratory and courtroom, exploring the many unusual ways forensics experts uncover evidence.

Of course, we at Deathly Ponderings just had to go along! It was utterly fascinating, and provided a rare look at real forensic items and techniques as well as historic photographs and archive material of some of the Victorian era’s most grizzly murders.

Image: Wellcome Collection

Image: Wellcome Collection

Bizarrely, the first thing we saw was an oddly-adorable dolls’ house. On further inspection, it was a mini model of a crime scene, known as a “nutshell study”: a brutal diorama used to teach criminology students in the skills of observation and inference.

The personal highlight for me was the “morgue” room, with specimens of skulls and brains with bullet wounds, and an original marble dissection table from the 1920s. You can sit and gaze at this slab while listening to the squelchy hacking sounds of a recorded autopsy, which makes for quite an unsettling experience.

Videos throughout the exhibit examine some of the questions about the forensics process, including one from the ever-wonderful Carla Valentine of St Bart’s Pathology Museum.

Image: Wellcome Collection

Image: Wellcome Collection

As well as forensics, the exhibit looked at how people respond to death, with sculptures inspired by victims of genocide and the intriguing Japanese art of Kusōzu, delicate paintings showing the body of a young woman in various stages of decomposition.

I don’t want to give too much else away, because this is an exhibition full of fascinating little details and you really need to experience it to get the full sense of being immersed in the world of forensics for a couple of hours. While you’re at the Wellcome Collection, the exhibitions on the other floors are also definitely worth checking out: I recommend the room of miscellanea from Henry Wellcome’s personal collection, including shrunken heads, preserved mummies and Napoleon’s toothbrush.

The exhibition is free and open Tuesdays-Sundays until 21 June. If you’re going to the Digital Legacy Conference looking at death and grief in the digital age, the Wellcome Collection is just around the corner, so you can do both!

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I could not stop for death…

(Apologies to Emily Dickinson for the title of this post!)

So it’s been a while since I posted about my mother’s death and the arrangements I have to make. It took a few days for the death certificate to be released from the coroner, and I travelled back “home” (not that it feels like it anymore) on Monday to do my duty as sole next-of-kin.

I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but the past few days have been such a whirlwind of paperwork, phonecalls, bank appointments, letters, meetings and other such administrative annoyances that I simply have not had the time to really stop and let the basic fact of the situation sink in: my mother, the last remaining member of my immediate family, is dead. That leaves me, and some uncles that I am rarely in touch with. Right. It’s hard to remember the human connection when dealing with names on forms and account numbers.

Today I finally had a bit of time to process this, and I feel…surprisingly OK about it. I worry that this makes me some sort of heartless sociopath, but I’m also glad that I am not utterly devastated by this event and can still function at something resembling basic normal-ish.

I’ve arranged the funeral thanks to a very helpful local funeral director who knows the family well (big shout out to independent funeral firms. You are awesome.), and dealt with the confusing feeling of writing a Catholic service when I left that religion years ago, but hey…Irish family tradition and all that. I am now awaiting relatives to turn up over the next couple of days, and the inevitable deluge of awkward small talk and emotional sympathies that I really could do without at this stage, but I’ll go along with for everyone else.

I did a very small and low-key naturalist memorial in the local woods by a lake today, which was my way of saying goodbye without the pomp and ritual of churches, and which meant more to me than any formal funeral ever could (thanks especially to well-timed local wildlife appearing). I feel at peace with death generally, and her death in particular, but am still pretty stressed about the upcoming funeral and managing everyone’s expectations.

I have some more I want to write about, like how it was visiting the house to sort through her (many) possessions, and the odd and sometimes guilty sense of relief I have now she is gone, but those are for other posts soon.

Isles of Scilly (Part One): Modern burials

For those of you that follow this blog (and our Facebook page) regularly, you will know that we went on a much deserved holiday. We went to the Isles of Scilly, which are situated just off of the Cornwall coast. They are a five island (with lots of smaller islets) archipelago and are quite wonderful.

The islands have been inhabited in some form or another since the Stone Age and before sea levels rose the islands were more of a large mass of land that could be walked across. Once cut off, the only way to travel from isle to isle is by boat. The history of the land is evidenced by its ancient stone monuments, which will be written about in Part Two of this small Isles of Scilly special report series.

For Part One, I wanted to write about the modern burial sites that I had the chance to visit while on the islands. Some islands are more populated and settled that others, with the largest populated island being St Mary’s. We decided to walk around the island using one of its many coastal walks to visit Old Town (New Town is the other side of the island and is where the main hub of the island is, with its quay and residential area).

The walk itself was gorgeous with fabulous landscapes and rock formations.

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All we were expecting was to was visit Old Town and have a typically Cornish cream tea when we glanced behind us as we were coming off of the coastal path and spotted a small stone stile that led us unexpectedly to Old Town’s Norman-era church, with its gorgeous graveyard.

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Due to the islands being surrounded by the sea and having a big fishing/shipping culture as a result, many of the gravestones had anchors on them, something I had never seen before.

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All of the various stones and monuments were covered in the same types of lichen that we had seen on rocks overhanging cliff edges and near the sea, so it was lovely to see how nature was making a home among the stones.

One incredibly feature that we could not ignore was the absolutely enormous memorial to Augustus Smith, former governor of the Isles of Scilly during the 1800s. According to the plaque, the memorial had been built by the locals to commemorate the man. The memorial stands at an incredible height as you can see in the below image.

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This next image was taken from the opposite side of the quite substantial bay that Old Town sits in. You can see the enormous monument on the right-hand side with another one at the very top. We did not get a chance to see how this belonged to as it was quite difficult to get to and we did not want to disturb the stones too much.

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Another significant resident of this particular graveyard that we did not realise was there until we left was former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who was buried there in 1995.

With around 530 registered shipwrecks around the Isles of Scilly, it is of not surprise that we also found dedications to many crews and passengers of ships that had sunk. One of the strangest (to me at least) people to be memorialised in this way was Ann Cargill, a British opera diva from London. Born around 1760, she reached a very celebrated status in no time at all, until her promising career was cut short when her ship wrecked while she was returning to England after performing in India in 1784.

The ‘young life cut short’ coverage and the news reports of how she was found floating in the water gripped the imaginations of the public, with her being portrayed as such a tragic figure.

I thought it was quite nice how the Isles of Scilly not only took care of their own, with many generations of estabilished Scillonian families being buried there, but they also looked after the poor souls who came from the outside and did not belong, but who died in their waters. Quite wonderful really.

While St Mary’s is the most populated and established island, graveyards are not limited to just that single place. Many, if not all, of the populated islands have at least a small church. We found a small graveyard on the considerably less populated Bryher island. At only 2 km long and with just over 70 inhabitants, this is the smallest of all the islands, yet its tiny graveyard is no less beautiful.

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If you ever have the chance to visit the islands, I would highly recommend it. They are gorgeous and like nothing else that I have ever experienced.

Until next time with Part Two…

 

 

Burials and cannibals and flints, oh my!

14029147072_05ef3327af_oAs part of our trip to London for an excellent CSI event, Ryan and I decided to visit the Natural History Museum’s temporary exhibition (on until 28th September 2014) called Britain: one million years of the human story.

It was quite wonderful and had many gorgeous specimens that have been excavated from around Britain, covering the various settlers of Britain: Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens. These specimens ranged from contemporary wildlife that these species would have hunted, plants that would have grown in these areas, and the tools that these species would have made to survive their environments.

Of course, with this being a death blog, I do have some highlights from the exhibition which I hope will encourage you to go along and visit!

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Birthday cake and forensics

14032836084_f0601b005f_oSo, what did you do for your last birthday? I became a forensic scientist…but for one evening only.

Several months ago I noticed that the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London ran really interesting looking evening events, one of which was their extremely successful and award-winning Crime Scene Live. I mentioned an interest in going to Ryan and within seconds he had booked us on the April 2014 date, just in time for my birthday.

We arrived after the NHM had closed but there were still quite a few people in the galleries as they were running several evening events at the same time, with one of them involving a fascinating talk on cannibalism. I was rather jealous of the other groups but I knew that I had a forensics session to go to with my name on it!

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Death Salon: My Thoughts

John Bellingham's skull on display at St Bart's. Photo credit: potts-pots.blogspot.com

John Bellingham’s skull on display at St Bart’s.
Photo credit: potts-pots.blogspot.com

I’ll admit it: Georgina is more deathly than me. Apart from a period as a Goth in my teens, and an aesthetic appreciation for all things horror, death has never featured strongly in my thoughts.

So when I went along to the Death Salon at St Bart’s, I had no idea what to expect and was a bit intimidated. However, the warm welcome and engaging speakers soon swept away any lingering fears, and I was instantly hooked, drawn in to this marvelously macabre world where funerals, autopsies and decomposition were acceptable topics of conversation over tea and biscuits!

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Death Salon UK: a life-changing event

IMG_0172Earlier this month I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend a three day conference in London that was all about death! Death Salon was started in the US and is based around the 18th century salon/coffeehouse movement where people got together to talk and share ideas. The recent event that I went to was the first time that Death Salon had held an event in the UK, so as soon as I heard it was happening, I snapped up two three day tickets immediately for Ryan and me!

I am very glad that I did, because during those three days I had an experience like no other. Each day had a theme: ante-mortem, peri-mortem and post-mortem. Each speaker sort of fitted in with each theme, with some finding some flexibility with their content. Each talk lasted for half an hour, with an average of 9-10 individual speakers per day, presenting on a whole range of topics. Each day was then concluded by a half hour keynote speech from one of the several Death Salon members who were in attendance: Megan Rosenbloom (Death Salon Director and co-founder), Dr Lindsey Fitzharris (Medical historian and The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice) and Caitlin Doughty (Founder of The Order of the Good Death).

As there was so much content, I cannot possibly cover each and every single speaker here, but thankfully there were some of us (myself included) who were tweeting throughout the conference and so I was able to pull everything together and create some rather epic Storify reports for each day. So, if you want the nitty gritty, check them out! Day One; Day Two; Day Three.

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