Press release

‘Mind Over Matter’: Photography exhibition unlocks secrets of brain donation

A revolutionary photography exhibition featuring portraits of brain donors, whose identities are revealed for the first time, opens today at Shoreditch Town Hall. By demystifying what happens behind the doors of brain bank laboratories, ‘Mind Over Matter’ draws back the veil of secrecy surrounding the practice of organ donation in celebration of those who elect to donate their brains after death for the purposes of neuroscientific research.

Supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award, 'Mind Over Matter' is a science-art collaboration about dementia and the contribution that a unique cadre of 12 brain donors, aged from 84 to more than 100, will make towards finding a cure for this devastating disease in the 21st century.

Dementia, which means 'without mind', affects cognition and can cause memory loss, attention deficits and difficulties with language or problem solving. In many cases it can lead to a total disorientation in time, in place and in person.

Understanding the scientific basis of this disease entails undertaking research on human brain tissue drawn from people who were affected by dementia as well as those with no signs of dementia at the time of death. All of this is dependent on the selfless generosity and courage of individuals who have elected to donate their brains after death.

At a time when the practice of retaining body parts for medical research has been rendered repugnant through past cases of unethical practice and adverse media attention, 'Mind Over Matter' seeks to rehabilitate the practice of body donation in the public imagination.

Artist Ania Dabrowska, collaborating with Dr Bronwyn Parry from Queen Mary, University of London, met with some of Britain's oldest prospective brain donors, who agreed to be photographed and interviewed about their lives and involvement in brain research. For these donors, death proves not to be the end of life for their brains, but rather a mere stopping-off point in a journey that sees them travel out and beyond their bodily lives to the global research laboratories of the future.

For the exhibition, Dabrowska interweaves photographic portraits, appropriated archival photographs, projections and sound narratives from the 12 donors, alongside scientific artefacts and medical imagery, to present a layered contemplation about the nature of memory loss and to trace the new lives that the brains take on after the donor's death.

Drawing on themes of memory, death, the transience of the body and ageing, the artist uses the labyrinth-like exhibition site to evoke a phenomenological experience of what it might feel like to lose one's memory.

Dabrowska explains the motivations behind the project: "Mind over Matter is primarily a celebration of the donors involved and the practice of organ donation in general. But we also wanted to explore some of the ethical, psychological, religious and social implications behind the process, for both the donors and their families, to get a better understanding of how people reach the decision to donate.

"As some of the donors who participated in Mind Over Matter have now passed away, the project provides a unique record of their philosophies on life, the relationship between memory and identity, death, donation and the ephemerality of the body."

Dr Parry adds: "Visual representation of organ donors is unprecedented in the UK. Through Mind Over Matter, we hope to challenge the historical relationship between anonymity, objectivity and the impartiality of science."

Mind Over Matter
12-23 October 2011
Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, London EC1V 9LT
Mon-Fri, 10.00-18.00 pm; Sat-Sun, 12.00-18.00
Free entry

Private view and book launch
11 October 2011, 18.00-21.00
Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, London EC1V 9LT


Mind Over Matter: A Public Talk
6 October 2011, 19.00-21.00
The Dana Centre, 65 Queen's Gate, London SW7 5HD

Join artist Ania Dabrowska, Dr Bronwyn Parry (Queen Mary, University of London), Professor Carol Brayne (University of Cambridge) and Professor Michael Parker (University of Oxford) for a panel discussion of the ethics of brain and organ donation.

Representing the Contentious: A Symposium
14 October 2011, 10.00-16.00
Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, London EC1V 9LT
Tickets free, registration required

A one-day interdisciplinary symposium that will examine the complexities of creating and representing work, academic or artistic, that has the capacity to cause or provoke controversy, offence or condemnation.