Murder at the museum: death and decay go on display

Wellcome Collection’s exhibition on the history of forensics includes slides from Crippen case and a stabbed liver

Photographs showing the gradual decomposition of human bodies, a scene-of-the-crime sketch of one of Jack the Ripper’s murders and an hour-long sound recording of an autopsy will be among the more startling displays at an exhibition on the history of forensics, which the Wellcome Collection will show next spring.

The curator, Lucy Shanahan, expects visitors to respond much like those shown clustering at the windows of a popular attraction in 19th-century Paris: the morgue where people flocked to see dead bodies laid out for identification. Prints of the scene show most of them, including children, gazing in fascination, and some turning away in horror.

“We will be providing plenty of seating,” Shanahan said.

Wellcome Collection exhibition
A scene of crime forensic kit. Photograph: Wellcome Collection/PA

Handwritten personal records of scores of cases by one of Britain’s most famous pathologists, Sir Bernard Spilsbury, will be on display for the first time, though the notes are missing for one of his best-known cases, that of Hawley Crippen, who was convicted of murdering his wife, Cora, in 1910.

Crippen, a mild-mannered bespectacled doctor, had fled by ship to Canada with his lover Ethel le Neve, who was disguised as a boy. He was caught after the captain sent a telegram, the first in crime history, alerting police to his suspicions about the odd couple, so the police were waiting for them when the ship docked in Canada. The doctor was hanged after the court accepted that a mutilated torso found under the cellar floor of his home in Holloway, north London, was indeed that of his missing wife. The exhibition will have courtroom sketches of the trial, and two of Spilsbury’s glass slides of samples from the torso, part of his expert evidence that helped send Crippen to the gallows.

Spilsbury helped establish the importance of forensic work in murder cases, but by the end of his long career many suggested that his ego was affecting his judgment and his evidence: in 2010 an American forensic scientist, David Foran, studied the Crippen slides again and suggested the body was male.

Shanahan said: “I’m not totally convinced that Crippen was innocent – there was after all a body under his floor which got there somehow – but it may be he was hanged for the wrong murder.”

The exhibition will trace the evolution of the science of forensics, including fingerprinting and DNA evidence, borrowing from collections normally closed to the public such as the pathology museum at Bart’s hospital, which is lending specimens including a liver with a stab wound, and the Met’s “Black Museum”, which is lending Crippen and Jack the Ripper material.

“We want to show the reality, not just the slick quick approach of television drama,” Shanahan said.

Wellcome Collection exhibition
Forensic pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s index cards. Photograph: Wellcome Collection/PA

The subject has fascinated many artists, and the exhibition will feature a specially commissioned piece by Šejla Kaqmerić on the victims of the Bosnia war in the 1990s, which will be shown in a mortuary fridge.

A piece by Teresa Margolles, a Mexican artist with a qualification in forensic medicine who won the Welsh fifth Artes Mundi prize, incorporates the floor tiles on which one of her friends was murdered. There will be exquisite 18th-century Japanese paintings alongside work by the US artist Jeffrey Silverthorne, who spent years photographing in the Rhode Island morgue, and by Sally Mann, who has made a photographic record of the Body Farm, a site in Tennessee where donated corpses are left to decay so the process can be studied.

Ken Arnold, head of public programmes at the Wellcome, said the exhibition opening in February would be a challenging, affecting and disquieting investigation of an aspect of the human condition.

The Wellcome, which opened a space designed for about 100,000 visitors a year but has regularly attracted five times that number, has the builders in for a £17.5m development to create more exhibition and public spaces. It remains open, and the next exhibition, on sex, launches the first of the new galleries this month.

Forensics: the anatomy of crime, Wellcome Collection, London NW1, from 26 February to 21 June, 2015


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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