I’m the proud owner of the complete Poirot DVD box set. It’s pretty addictive watching a moustachioed David Suchet (as Hercule Poirot) solving crimes with his little grey cells in overdrive. However, I’m under no illusions that real crime is anywhere near as neatly solved as Agatha Christie would have us believe.
Whilst Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime is Poirot-less, it does contain more than enough genuine artefacts and stories to keep whodunit fans in suspense. I’d already read crime writer Val McDermid’s book (of the same title), which acts as the official companion to the exhibition, so I had an inkling about some of the displays and their place in the history of forensics. If you haven’t already bought the book and don’t have time to read it beforehand, try to get your hands on a signed copy from the Wellcome shop.
An extra treat was in store for the opening day of the exhibition – McDermid gave a free talk about the process of writing and researching her book, which saw her learning from experts including Sue Black, a leading forensic anthropologist. I’ve mixed some of her quotes from the talk into this review, which should hopefully give you even more reasons to go and see Forensics for yourself. The five different rooms of the exhibition offer a really comprehensive guide to all things forensic, from evidence gathering to grilling witnesses and experts in court.
The Crime Scene
Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are unavoidable as you enter the room. At first glance they look like dimly lit parts of a Barbie house given a cosy middle American makeover. On closer inspection, each 40s and 50s model replicates the scene of a mysterious death in minute detail, right down to painstakingly labelled food tins on kitchen units and gaudy wallpaper in the background. Oh, and a tiny doll body or two.
It’s an unnerving sight, even more so because it represents a real death, and is used to train the police, even today. But this was not the brainchild of a seasoned detective; Glessner Lee was an American heiress fascinated by homicide investigations. As McDermid said, “It’s like a doll’s house of death – not a nice, middle-class scene, but a murder or suicide. It’s utterly bizarre.” The header image I used for this post is one of Corinne May Botz’s photographs of the Nutshell Studies; she spent six years documenting the 20 models from the collection, which belongs to the state medical examiner’s office in Baltimore, Maryland.
Things get weirder still, with blowflies and maggot samples on display, and crime scene photographers showing off their skills both in real life situations and staged tableaux. There’s also Teresa Margolles’ poignant artwork about violence-filled Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, a map of a Jack the Ripper murder location, and a video showing thermal imaging techniques.
Casual or just plain squeamish visitors zip through this room pretty quickly, for obvious reasons – not least because a genuine mortuary table sits at the far end. Strangely enough, it was made by Royal Doulton, a company better known for producing chintzy crockery and naff figurines (though they’ve recently gone all trendy and developed a line called Evil Bunnies. Not even joking). However weird it may be, the table serves an important purpose and marks a development in the history of autopsies, which historians believe were first practiced in the 13th century.
Other exhibits to mull over include the video interview with Carla Valentine, technical curator of Bart’s Pathology Museum, followed by a browse of Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s index cards. Spilsbury was a charismatic scientist who enjoyed the performance aspects of testifying in court. As his reputation grew, he became almost untouchable, and was able to convince the jury with little effort.
Today’s entertainment world is saturated by reality TV shows, which we’ll happily gawp at for hours (FYI, Real Housewives and First Dates are two of my top recommendations), but years ago people had to get their kicks in different ways. I already knew about the popularity of asylum tours as a twisted form of entertainment, but I had no idea Parisians were able to visit viewing galleries in the morgue up until 1900. The practice only ended ‘out of concern for public morality’.
This is the reality behind the scenes you see on CSI and Silent Witness: the day-to-day dealing with swabs and evidence bags and the gradual dependence on fingerprinting, photo fits and DNA. Though the TV shows try to convince you otherwise, forensic scientists don’t swan off interviewing suspects; their conclusions are drawn from science.
“Any fictional representation of crime investigation isn’t accurate, because real crime investigation can be boring. We cherry-pick to make it more dramatic… The reality for forensic scientists is stressful – dealing with people in grief, then being tested in a courtroom, with barristers determined to make them look stupid.”
Val McDermid at the Wellcome Collection talk
There are some hugely important developments celebrated in the room, such as the Marsh test, which could detect arsenic (previously the poisoner’s perfect weapon, as arsenic is colourless and odourless), and the world’s first national DNA database, established in the UK in 1995. You also see the earliest mug shot, pioneered by criminologist Alphonse Bertillon.
For many visitors – myself included – this is the most distressing room, showing the desperate hunt for murder victims throughout history. Without a body to bury, friends and relatives don’t have closure and they’re essentially left in the dark. The documentary Nostalgia for the Light plays on one wall, showing Chilean citizens searching the Atacama desert for the remains of their relatives, who were ‘disappeared’ by the government as political prisoners.
On a second wall, The Eyes of Gutete Emerita plays – a short video about a witness to the harrowing Rwandan genocide. In other parts of the room, facial reconstruction techniques show how scientists try to connect the evidence they come across with the facts they hold about a missing person.
The centrepiece here is Šejla Kamerić’s installation, Ab uno disce omnes (2015), commissioned by the Wellcome Collection. Visitors step inside a mortuary fridge with a noisy generator and a heavy door, then watch as files about the Bosnian war and its aftermath appear on the screen. With over 30,000 people missing due to the conflict, and 30,000 photos, videos and other documents in the installation, the result is intentionally overwhelming. What’s more, because the files are shown at random and the artist is still collecting data to add to the project, everyone will have a different experience inside the fridge. It’s utterly surreal but very powerful to watch.
Programs like Law & Order take you from the crime scene to the courtroom, and finally the fascination with crime drama is given a hefty nod, with a projector screen showing trial clips from TV and film moments through the ages. They include Garrow’s Law, focusing on 18th century barrister William Garrow, and the David Lean film Madeleine, based on the Scottish verdict of ‘not proven’ delivered to Madeleine Smith in a murder trial.
The room takes you through a brief history of the courts, from Roman forum trials to the transcript of ‘The tryal of Spencer Cowper’ in 1699. You learn how Charles Dickens complained bitterly about coroners’ inquests being held in pubs, which trivialised what had happened to the deceased. In Bleak House he wrote, ‘The coroner frequents more public-houses than any man alive.’ A more recent exhibit is the scar tissue used as evidence by Sir Bernard Spilsbury in the famous Crippen case (where Dr. Crippen was presumed to have killed his wife and buried her in the cellar) – the scar tissue is now hotly debated and probably didn’t belong to Mrs. Crippen at all.
Before you leave, there’s just enough time to absorb the large-scale photo prints from Taryn Simon’s series, The Innocents, connected to The Innocence Project, a US-based organisation which began in 1992 and aims to exonerate people wrongfully convicted of serious crimes. Simon photographed some of these innocent men in places connected to their conviction, bringing together themes of identification, eyewitnesses and memory.
Forensics is a really strong exhibition that leaves a lasting impression. If you’re at all curious about the blurred boundaries between crime, law, science and art, you’ll take plenty away from seeing this, despite the absence of Poirot.
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime runs until 21st June 2015. The Wellcome Collection is just across the road from Euston Square Station, at 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE. Gallery areas are open from 10:00-18:00 on Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Saturday, 10:00-22:00 on Thursday and 11:00-18:00 on Sunday; other parts of the building, such as the cafe and the library, may vary their opening hours.
You can’t take photos inside the exhibition, but you’re encouraged to tweet about it afterwards (#anatomyofcrime), and entry is free. There may be queues during peak times and timed tickets issued. Upcoming themed events include ‘The Poetry of Dolls and Murder’ (16th April 2015) and ‘Šejla Kamerić in Conversation’ (21st May 2015) – book in advance.