Arts, Entertainment & Media

‘Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime’ opens at the Wellcome Collection

Coroner's jury viewing the murdered body

Coroner’s jury viewing the murdered body © Bishopsgate Institute

After nearly two years of preparation, ‘Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime’ has opened at the Wellcome Collection in London.

The exhibition casts a wide net. It explores the complex and complementary relationship between history, science, and the art of forensic medicine from the seventeenth century to the present day.

Original evidence, archival material, photographic documentation, film footage, and forensic instruments and specimens are displayed across five rooms, each marking one stage of forensics enquiry, from crime scene to courtroom.

These include brain sections showing the journey of a bullet, a post-mortem table from 1925, and the camera used to photograph Mary Kelly, Jack the Ripper’s final victim.

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The exhibition invites visitors to engage with the work of celebrated forensics investigators Alphonse Bertillon, Mathieu Orfila, Edmond Locard, and Alex Jeffreys, as well as with real cases like the Dr. Crippen trial and the Ruxton murders that marked turning points in the development of the field.

Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes at Welcomme Collection, said:

Forensics’ reminds us of the human body’s extraordinary capacity to leave traces beyond death and disappearance. This unsettling truth is both the focus of an astonishing range of scientific enquiry and fertile territory for the cultural imagination.

The star of forensics medicine is the blow fly, the image that is used to represent this exhibition. Moments after a person dies, blow flies appear at the scene to lay eggs on the corpse that hatch into maggots.

Without blow flies, forensics investigators would find it very difficult to determine the approximate time of death, a crucial piece of information in solving murder cases.

Visitors can also hear from experts working in forensics today. They describe the nature of their involvement in the field and explain how technological advances are beginning to transform how forensics experts collect and analyse evidence.

These developments aren’t only reducing the chances of someone being wrongly convicted, they’re also making autopsies much less invasive through techniques like 3D imaging, now being referred to as ‘virtopsy’.

International artworks are an important feature of ‘Forensics’, as they serve to link the highly technical practice of investigating past events to the often traumatic human experiences associated with them.

Curator Lucy Shanahan comes from a visual arts background, like most of the curators at Wellcome Collection. With no experience in the field of forensics, Ms. Shanahan used art as her entry point.

Here she is in an interview with at the Wellcome Collection on the day of the exhibition’s opening.

All of the artists whose work Ms. Shanahan encountered tended to have a very direct connection with the area of crime and forensics. And many were women.

The Mexican artist, Teresa Margolles, for example, worked as a mortuary technician in Mexico City for a number of years. Ms. Shanahan said:

The life that she has led professionally and personally in that part of the world has informed all of the work that she makes that not only bears reference to those forensic processes but also the terrible violence escalating across Mexico today.

‘Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime’ opened to an excellent review in The Guardian and is featured in the Daily Mail online, The Times, and the Financial Times.

Below are some responses from visitors on the day of the opening.

Image: “L’inconnue de la Seine (‘the unknown woman of the Seine’)” © Francesco Ferla, for Museum of the Order of St John, London

Image: Fingerprint roll © Metropolitan Police, Heritage Centre

Image: Post mortem set, complete set of instruments © Science Museum, London

The exhibition is free and runs until 21 June 2015.

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