Press release

'Forensics: The anatomy of crime' opens at Wellcome Collection

Following a £17.5 million development, Wellcome Collection has opened a major exhibition exploring the history, science and art of forensic medicine. 'Forensics: The anatomy of crime' travels from crime scene to courtroom, across centuries and continents, exploring the specialisms of those involved in the delicate processes of collecting, analysing and presenting medical evidence. It draws out the stories of victims, suspects and investigators of violent crimes and our enduring cultural fascination with death and detection.

'Forensics' contains original evidence, archival material, photographic documentation, film footage, forensic instruments and specimens, and is rich with artworks offering both unsettling and intimate responses to traumatic events. Challenging familiar views of forensic medicine shaped by fictions inspired by the sensational reporting of late Victorian murder cases and popular crime dramas, the exhibition highlights the complex entwining of law and medicine, and the scientific methods it calls upon and creates. It surveys real cases involving forensic advances, including the Dr Crippen trial and the Ruxton murders, pioneers of forensic investigation from Alphonse Bertillon, Mathieu Orfila and Edmond Locard to Alec Jeffreys, and the voices of experts working in the field today.

The first of five sections in the exhibition, 'The Crime Scene', investigates the different techniques of recording the location of a crime and its power both as a repository of evidence to be examined and a haunting site of memory. Representations of crimes and death scenes include sketches from the site of a murder attributed to Jack the Ripper, the work of Alphonse Bertillon, whose 'God’s eye view' brought methodological rigour to the new possibilities offered by photography, and Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell studies: intricate dioramas of domestic crime scenes built in the 1950s and still in use as training devices. Corinne May Botz’s large scale photographs magnify Glessner Lee's miniature worlds to an unnervingly human scale, whilst artist Teresa Margolles brings a literal murder scene into the gallery, laying out the floor tiles on which a friend was killed.

The crucial clues offered by decomposition are explored both through the work of modern day forensic entomologists and texts and paintings which offer a history of our understanding of decay, from an exquisite ‘Kusozu’ sequence of 18th century Japanese watercolours detailing the physical deterioration of a dead noblewoman in nine paintings, to Sally Mann’s arresting portraits of open air ‘body farms’ in Tennessee, where corpses are laid out in different outdoor settings for the purposes of study.

'The Morgue' traces a history of pathology, from Song Ci’s 13th century Chinese text 'The Washing Away of Wrongs', often seen as the first guide to forensics, to the celebrity pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, a selection of whose autopsy note cards are displayed for the first time. 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 and the apparatus that enables it is recorded in the exhibition through damaged human remains, wound illustrations, weapons and post mortem tools, whilst 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’ (now known as the exchange principle) guides the array of disciplines, including serology, toxicology, microscopy, criminal profiling and DNA analysis that feature in 'The Laboratory. A succession of identifying and classifying techniques from Bertillon’s mug shots and physiognomic charts, Edward Henry’s fingerprint classificationand Alec Jeffreys’ first genetic fingerprint, sit alongside the trace evidence techniques of blood and poison analysis that made traceless crimes visible.

Reconstructions of movement and identity required in looking for missing people are considered in 'The Search', both through individual cases and mass disappearances. A newly commissioned artwork for the exhibition by Šejla Kameric seeks to recover human stories behind the critical mass of statistics and data generated by the on-going identification of massacre victims in the 1992-95 Bosnian war. The work of forensic anthropologists and archaeologists is reflected through troubling artworks exploring facial reconstruction, by Christine Borland, sexual violence, by Jenny Holzer and, in the portraits and film of Alfredo Jaar and Patricio Guzmán, genocide in Rwanda and 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 gathered and presented in 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 both by charismatic pathologists like Spilsbury and Hollywood scriptwriters. From the Roman forum to the Old Bailey the exhibition closes with the space which brings together the many strands of forensic medicine, either as a conclusion to an investigation, or to contest previous convictions. 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, whilst 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 both 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' is free and 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, £8.99 hardback & eBook.