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!

Sunday Sundries 6

As you may know, we’ve been away for a bit, but we’re getting back into our regular posting schedule again now. So here’s what we found online this week:

The Huffington Post discusses why cremation is more popular than ever in the US. There are a number of factors contributing to this change in funerary practice, including the fact that as people become more mobile, the traditional ‘family plot’ is becoming less relevant. Changing religious practices also seem to play a role, with less social pressure to have a traditional Christian funeral. Check out the article, it also has a lovely infographic!

"Sylivia" at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle. Image from Strange Remains.

“Sylivia” at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle. Image from Strange Remains.

The Tumblr “Strange Remains” has a great post looking at some of the more bizarre ways human remains have been displayed over the years, not just in museums but in curiosity shops, restaurants and even public bathrooms. Given the controversy of displaying human remains even in more traditional museum settings, it’s eye-opening to see how people’s attitudes to corpses-on-display can be so different. Quirky or distasteful? What do you think?

In weird news, my favourite story of the week has to be the man who was arrested and fined in Portsmouth, UK, for pretending to be a ghost in a local cemetery. Oh dear, that’s my weekend plans gone then!

If you’re in the UK (or can do some sneaky stuff online) you can watch the new series “The Beauty of Anatomy” on BBC iPlayer. The first episode discussed the legacy of the ancient anatomist Galen and how his ideas held sway until Leonardo da Vinci and others began to practice human dissections.

If you can’t view that, but still want a cool anatomy fix, the first edition of Vesaluis’ famous De Humani Corporis Fabrica is available as a digitised copy from the US National Library of Medicine. Seriously, check this out. It’s some of the most beautiful and interactive digitisation of a text I’ve ever seen!

And finally, I leave you with this charming and very funny animation about a couple of very dedicated undertakers:

 

Death in Cambridge: the Arbury Lady

Rigged poker -stiff on her back
With a granite grin
This antique museum-cased lady
Lies, companioned by the gimcrack
Relics of a mouse and a shrew
That battened for a day on her ankle-bone.

-Sylvia Plath

In 1957, Sylvia Plath wrote the poem ‘All the dead dears‘, inspired by a visit to the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where she viewed the coffin and skeleton of a Roman lady exhumed locally. Due to lack of space, the Roman tomb was taken off public display in the 1980s. In 2012, the Museum had a large-scale refurbishment and restored the remains to their original setting.

The Arbury Lady. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The face of the Arbury Lady. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The body is of a Roman British woman from the 4th century CE, aged around 40-50, encased in a large coffin of stone lined with lead. She was found by builders working on a housing estate in Arbury, north Cambridge, in the early 1950s and has become known as the Arbury Lady.

Not only one body was found in the coffin, however. The skeletal remains of a mouse and a shrew were entombed with the lady, and there is evidence that they were gnawing on the body, especially around the ankles. The Museum have thoughtfully displayed the rodents with the Arbury Lady, preserving this fascinating detail of post-mortem activity.

Shrew and mouse bones. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Shrew and mouse bones. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Sarah-Jane Harkness, outreach officer at the Museum told the Cambridge News about how the Arbury Lady continues to inspire fascination and connects local people with their past and history

“A schoolchild was fascinated to find out the coffin had been discovered in his own street, in his neighbour’s garden. It is bringing history to them in a way they can understand – it gives it continuity.”

The Arbury Lady is displayed very respectfully in a large side-gallery away from the entrance desk and gift shop areas of the Museum, and visiting her always seems very peaceful, even during busy days. I find her very moving, and it really does feel like connecting with a real person rather than just an exhibit.

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has many more fascinating and deathly items to explore, and is well worth a visit!