Exhibition review: Brains - the mind as matter

This exhibition is of great value for GPs, but suitable for all the family, writes Dr John G Hughes.

Sagittal and longitundinal sections of the brain
Sagittal and longitundinal sections of the brain

Offering a fascinating mix of science, art and history, 'Brains: the mind as matter' at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry combines Wellcome Collection specimens and items of local interest.

The exhibition is divided into four:

  • Measuring/classifying looks at techniques used to define the relationship between the brain's function and form.
  • Mapping/modelling considers attempts to represent the anatomy of the brain.
  • Cutting/treating explores the history of surgical intervention on the brain.
  • Giving/taking traces the history of brain collecting.
About the exhibition

Brains: the mind as matter
This Wellcome Collection exhibition runs until 4 January 2014 at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester. Entry is free.




The first exhibits you see are equipment and documents relating to anthropometry - Galton's racially and eugenically suspect theory that brain and skull size were related to race.

Included here is a 'brain spanner', used for external cranial measurement (which I suspect may reappear as a mandatory QOF tool, to collect documentable but useless data).

Just around the corner from this is a range of exhibits connected with phrenology, another pseudoscience that related skull shape to intelligence, character, personality and disease; the British Phrenological Society only folded in 1967.

The next exhibit was for me the most stunning, a book of anatomist Andreas Vesalius' engravings and thoughts on the anatomy and function of the brain, dating from 1555.

The detail and accuracy are incredible and close by, a much smaller book displays an engraving by Sir Christopher Wren of the brain and the cerebral circulation, made for his colleague Thomas Willis in 1664 and including the 'circle of Willis', the ring of arteries at the base of the brain that supplies it with blood.

There are brain sections, brain casts and vascular structures, and videos, including one of brain dissection at Hammersmith Hospital, where slices are made using what appears to be a domestic breadknife.

Items of local interest include exhibits relating to the development of the world's first commercial CT unit, the EMI scanner at Manchester University's department of neuroradiology, by Professor Ian Isherwood in 1973 (allegedly partly funded by EMI's profits from sales of the Beatles' albums).


There are also exhibits relating to hydrocephaly, including the work of a local paediatric neurosurgeon, Carys Bannister, on the technique for prenatal shunting.

A more disturbing section of the exhibition details the 'scientific' research of Nazi doctors on children with brain or mental health problems, with meticulous documentation but dubious death certification.

Records show that while some of these doctors were prosecuted, many had significant post-war careers based on ethically suspect research.

On a less controversial note, you can also see a cast of Einstein's brain, showing unusual gyrus patterns on the left hemisphere - it is a matter of speculation whether these are relevant to his intellectual capacity.

The brains of criminals and murderers have also been a source of fascination for many, and there is an exhibit of a small 'souvenir' sample of the brain of William Burke (of the graverobbers Burke and Hare).

There are several audio exhibits in which people who have decided to donate their brain to science discuss their reasons for doing so.

Other installations include videos of fluorescent-labelled neurons developing and connecting in a chick brain and Manchester University's mapping of a nematode brain, with all 302 neurons (compared with the 16-18bn in the human brain).

Headaches and odd behaviours were long felt to be caused by problems inside the brain trying to get out, and several exhibits deal with the practice of trepanation. There is a Neolithic skull with a hole, and instruments ancient and modern for drilling through the skull, including various types of seashell, and detailed Victorian research on the best materials for doing this.

Photographs of US neurosurgeon Dr Harvey Cushing and his early patients, showing gross presentations of untreated pituitary and neuroendocrine disorders, seem much more than a century old.

Despite the alleged problems with GP access, nowadays we do generally diagnose patients well before irreversible changes have occurred.

Who should visit?

Who should attend this exhibition? It is not really suitable for small children (the museum suggests over 14, but I think younger children with an interest in nature would find large sections of interest).

It is mainly directed at a non-medical audience, but of great value at a deeper level for doctors, so suitable for all the family.

My teenagers (16 and 18) gave the exhibition a score of eight out of 10 and found the brain slices of particular interest. I would give a more generous nine out of 10 and found the medieval documents the most intriguing, although that is perhaps because I am closer in daily work to some of the other subjects.

Allow about two hours to view all the exhibits and read the captions, although one hour would suffice for a more superficial viewing.

  • Dr Hughes is a GP in Manchester

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