Press release

Forensics: The anatomy of crime

Following a £17.5 million development, Wellcome Collection will open a major exhibition in February 2015 exploring the history, science and art of forensic medicine. 'Forensics: The anatomy of crime’ travels from crime scenes to courtrooms, exploring the specialisms of those involved in the delicate processes of collecting, analysing and presenting medical evidence. It looks at the stories of victims, suspects and investigators of violent crimes, and our enduring cultural fascination with death and detection.

The exhibition contains original evidence, photographic documentation, film footage, forensic instruments and specimens, and is rich with artworks offering unsettling and intimate responses to traumatic events. Challenging the familiar views of forensic medicine shaped by popular crime dramas and Victorian-era sensational reporting, ‘Forensics’ highlights the complex entwining of law, medicine and science. It surveys real cases involving forensic advances, including the Dr Crippen trial and the Ruxton murders; pioneers of forensic investigation, from Alphonse Bertillon and Mathieu Orfila to Edmond Locard and Alec Jeffreys; and the voices of experts working in the field today.

The first of five sections in the exhibition, ‘The Crime Scene’, investigates different techniques of recording the location of a crime, and its power as both a repository of evidence to be examined and a haunting site of memory. Representations of crime scenes include sketches from the site of a murder attributed to Jack the Ripper and Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell studies, intricate dioramas of domestic crime scenes built in the 1950s and still in use as training devices. Artist Teresa Margolles brings a literal murder scene into the gallery, laying out the floor tiles on which a friend was killed.

The clues offered by decomposition are explored through the work of modern-day forensic entomologists and through texts and paintings that offer a history of our understanding of decay. These include an exquisite 'Kusozu’ sequence of 18th-century Japanese watercolours, detailing the physical deterioration of a dead noblewoman in nine paintings, and Sally Mann’s arresting portraits of open air ‘body farms’ in Tennessee.

‘The Morgue’ traces a history of pathology, from the 13th-century Chinese text ‘The Washing Away of Wrongs’ (often seen as the first guide to forensics) to the celebrity pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury. From a space for viewing corpses in Paris - the word morgue comes from morguer, ‘to peer’ - to the virtual autopsies afforded by MRI, CT and 3D scanning, the morgue offers a vital space for questioning the dead. This silent exchange is recorded in the exhibition through damaged human remains, weapons and post-mortem tools, while the clinically direct morgue photographs of Jeffrey Silverthorne attest to the delicate threshold between life and death.

Edmond Locard founded the first police crime laboratory in early 20th-century Lyon, and his simple theory that ‘every contact leaves a trace’ guides the array of disciplines (including serology, toxicology, criminal profiling and DNA analysis) that feature in ‘The Laboratory’. A succession of identifying and classifying techniques - from Bertillon’s mug shots to Alec Jeffreys’ first genetic fingerprint - sit alongside the techniques of blood and poison analysis that make traceless crimes visible.

The reconstructions required when looking for missing people are considered in ‘The Search’. A new artwork by Šejla Kameric, commissioned for the exhibition, seeks to recover the human stories behind the statistics and data generated by the ongoing identification of massacre victims in the 1992-95 Bosnian War. The work of forensic anthropologists and archaeologists is reflected in several troubling works: Christine Borland's on facial reconstruction, Jenny Holzer's on sexual violence, Alfredo Jaar's on the Rwandan genocide and Patricio Guzmán's on political disappearances in Chile. These unsettling pieces trace different and urgent searches for justice, reparation and restitution of identity in the face of personal and political atrocities.

‘The Courtroom’ marks the final test of forensic medicine’s success, as evidence is presented in the pursuit of justice. Forensic investigation has transformed the courtroom, but expert witnesses are subject to the less certain territory of performance when presenting their findings - a dramatic tension exploited by both charismatic pathologists such as Spilsbury and Hollywood scriptwriters. Taryn Simon’s photographs of wrongly convicted people at the scenes of crimes they did not commit gives a final reminder that forensics is an ever-evolving field, constantly reviewing its own certainties.

Lucy Shanahan, Curator, says: “This exhibition gives alternative views of the forensic process from the CSI detections of popular fiction and television, while exploring the cultural fascination that the disciplines of forensic medicine inspire. Our journey from crime scene to courtroom takes in pioneers of scientific techniques that have revolutionised the way in which crimes are investigated and offers visitors unexpected encounters with the changing relationship between medicine, law and society.”

Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes at Wellcome Collection, says: “‘Forensics’ reminds us of the human body’s extraordinary capacity to leave traces beyond death and disappearance. This unsettling truth is the focus of an astonishing range of scientific enquiry and fertile territory for the cultural imagination. Challenging, affecting, at once familiar and disquieting, it’s a perfect subject for Wellcome Collection to explore as it welcomes visitors to its new expanded spaces.”

‘Forensics: The anatomy of crime’ runs from 26 February to 21 June 2015 at Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE. A wide programme of events will accompany the exhibition, and a publication of the same name by crime writer Val McDermid is available (published by Wellcome Collection and Profile Books, £20 hardback and eBook).