Standing beside the liver of a Victorian girl and the six-inch knife with which her brother fatally stabbed her four times, Ken Arnold, head of exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection, says cheerfully: “No, I don’t think we’re going to have any fainters this time.”
The more full-on exhibitions at Wellcome, including footage of open-heart surgery and vividly realistic wax models of appalling diseases, have acquired a reputation for causing sensitive visitors to be carried out feet first. Forensics, an exhibition that follows the course of murder and violent assault from crime scene to courtroom, may yet continue that trend.
The exhibition, which opens on Thursday, includes tiny glass jars of blow flies taken from a murder victim; a porcelain dissecting table from an Edwardian morgue, made by Royal Doulton and bearing a troubling cousinship to a posh kitchen sink; part of the brain of a man who shot himself and lived for another two days despite the bullet track through his head; a Victorian watercolour of a dead man with a blue face and a note that decomposition set in unusually quickly “during the hot weather of the summer 1893”; and slides made by the celebrity pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury that he believed proved that the body in the cellar of Dr Crippen was that of his missing wife Cora – Spilsbury’s evidence has since been challenged, but it helped hang Crippen in 1910.
Despite Arnold’s cheeriness, the show’s curator Lucy Shanahan occasionally found her years of research for Forensics gruelling. “There are a few books – some included in the exhibition – which I first opened and then closed again very quickly. I think over the years I did probably become slightly desensitised, but there were always things I saw and knew that was where the line had to be drawn. We did not need to see that in the exhibition.”
She tried hard, she says, to remember the impact of the cases on the victims of crime, their relatives, and even those accused, sometimes unjustly. Many of the contemporary works of art focus on the anguish of those searching for answers after atrocities such as the mass executions during the Bosnian wars, and the exhibition ends with a series of striking photographs by the American artist Taryn Simon, of wrongly convicted people brought back to the scenes of the crimes they did not commit.
Shanahan’s favourite exhibit is one of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, sinister doll’s house scenes made in the early 20th century by Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy American woman fascinated by forensic science. She constructed the murder scenes as teaching aids and they are still in use by police in Baltimore today. She spent years on each tiny scene, complete with every detail of blood spatters, overturned chairs, windows ajar. The one on display has a man sprawled on a couch, apparently in drunken sleep, a bottle on the ground beside him and his anxious dog staring at him: it is believed to represent a murder disguised as a fatal alcohol binge.
The exhibition marks the full reopening of the Wellcome Collection after a £17.5m rebuild. The building, billed as “the free destination for the incurably curious”, only opened in 2007 but was promptly swamped by its own success. The expansion by Wilkinson Eyre architects added 40% more public space, including a beautiful reading room. “We are now fully revamped,” Arnold says, “bigger, better, and more curious than ever.”
Forensics: the Anatomy of Crime, free at the Wellcome Collection from 26 February to 21 June.