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Do the Dead Talk? Forensics: the anatomy of crime at Wellcome Collection

By Edited Jun 29, 2016 1 2

Do the dead talk to us? Most definitely, but how do we listen?

How do forensic scientists unravel dastardly deaths and cunning crimes? Forensics: the anatomy of crime, the latest exhibition to open at London's Wellcome Collection, examines all aspects of the history, science and art of forensic medicine.

Finterprint Roll

The display explains how forensic scientists work out exactly how a crime was committed or how someone died, where they came from, how they lived, and who killed them. A single hair can unlock the mysteries of an unsolved murder.

Speaking at the Wellcome Collection recently, Curator Lucy Shanahan said:

“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 revolutionized the way in which crimes are investigated, and offers visitors unexpected encounters with the changing relationship between medicine, law and society.”

Forensics: the anatomy of crime

The exhibition is laid out in five main sections: The Crime Scene; The Morgue; The Laboratory; The Search; and The Courtroom. Through original evidence, archival material, photographic documentation, film footage, forensic instruments, specimens and works of art, we learn the stories of the victims and the accused. We see how investigators of violent crimes gather evidence using their own skills plus those of a vast number of forensic experts.

Wellcome Collection: A Guide for the Incurably Curious
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Exhibition Challenges Our Ideas of Forensic Medicine

Challenging our familiar concepts of forensic medicine Forensics: the anatomy of crime gives us a valuable insight into the work of forensic scientists. It shows us the complicated interconnections between law and medicine by looking very closely at the people involved in the process of collecting, analyzing and presenting the evidence.

Drawing 1: Courtroom portraits from the trail of Dr Crippen.
The exhibition considers real cases such as the Crippen trial and the Ruxton murders. These cases are particularly relevant because advances in forensic techniques led to the solving of the cases.

Forensics: the anatomy of crime presents the work today's forensic scientists together with that of pioneers of early forensic investigation such as Alphonse Bertillon, Mathieu Orfila, Edmond Locard and Alec Jeffreys.

Highlights of the Exhibition

How does one choose the highlights of such an extraordinary exhibition? It's extremely difficult, but here are the things that really interested me.

For me, the obvious place to start is with French forensic scientist Edmond Locard (1877-1966). Known as 'the French Sherlock Holmes', Locard established the world's first police crime laboratory in Lyon in 1910 in two rooms, begged from the local police department.

Edmond Locard at a microscope with his son.
Locard's methods grew from one basic, very simple, principle: ″Every contact leaves a trace″. This concept, known as 'Locard's exchange principle', stresses that whatever a criminal touches, any trace he leaves behind, will lead to the criminal's eventual prosecution. His fingerprints, his footprints, a strand of hair, blood, semen, or fibres from his clothing will give up their secrets, as will any tool marks he makes, or paint that he scratches.

In 1912, Locard applied his theory to the case of Émile Gourbin. Traces of cosmetics from under Gourbin's fingernails led to his conviction for the murder of his girl friend, Marie Latelle. The portrait shows Locard and his son, also a forensic scientist, at work in his laboratory.

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All you ever wanted to know about forensics!

The DNA Database and Swab Test

Two DNA Swab Collection Kits
Through literature, film and television, most of us are familiar with DNA swab collection kits. Within five years of setting up the first DNA database in the UK in 1995, matches between suspects and crime scenes reached 500 per week. Blood, saliva, semen, hair, skin and urine can all be analysed for DNA, leading to the solving of both old and new crimes.


A Morbid Fascination with Death

Richard Brinsley Peake, La Morgue
In bringing together science and art the exhibition features works such as La Morgue, an aquatint etching by Richard Brinsley Peake. (1792-1847).

The word morgue comes from morguer, ‘to peer’, and in Peake's etching a variety of people, including a man in a top hat, a mother and her young child, as well as a soldier in full uniform, are viewing bodies in the Morgue. Such was the fascination with death in the early 19th century, that large crowds flocked to the Morgue on the pretext of identifying the dead. In reality this morbid activity was a highly popular pastime with the public. Indeed, the Morgue was actually listed in Paris city guides as an essential destination.

Torso, Murdered Man (from Morgue Work, 1972-74)
The exhibition brings us right up-to-date with Jeffrey Silverthorne's Torso, Murdered Man, from the series Morgue Work. Between 1972 and 1991 Silverthorne was permitted to photograph bodies at the Rhode Island morgue. His work shows the fine line between life and death, but also brings us into direct contact with the stark realities of death.


Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime (Wellcome)
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Crime writer, Val McDermid, examines forensic science.

Hawley Harvey Crippen - "The Naughty Doctor"

In 1910, the American homeopath, eye and ear specialist, Dr Crippen, known as 'The Naughty Doctor', was executed at Pentonville Prison for the murder of his wife Cora Henrietta Crippen, (also known as Belle Elmore). He was the first criminal captured with the aid of wireless telegraphy, the newest technology at the time.

Broadsheet - Execution of Dr. Crippen. The Naughty Doctor.
On 23rd November 1910, a large crowd gathered outside the prison to await his execution. To mark the occasion a broadside gave a detailed account of Crippen's crime, his trial and of course, his death. The sheet included a transcript of Dr Crippen's statement and a description of his lover Ethel Le Neve. Although public hangings stopped in the late 1860s, there remained a huge demand for publications such as this.

The display also features courtroom sketches from Crippen's trial, shown above. As photography was not allowed in the courtroom William Hartley (1862-1937), a Fleet Street photographer, used his artistic skills to record some of the famous cases at Bow Street Magistrates' Court and the Old Bailey. This drawing shows the accused, the witnesses, the jurors and court officials in intricate and fascinating detail.

Dr. Crippen [Region 2]
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Frances Glessner Lee's Nutchell Studies

Nutshell Study of Unexplained Death - Crime scene model by Frances Glessner Lee.
Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962), an American heiress, created twenty models which she called 'The Nutchell Studies of Unexplained Death. Based on real crimes, the purpose of these meticulously crafted models was to instruct police investigators how to adopt a methodical approach when searching for, and gathering evidence. These dioramas are still in use today.




The Wellcome Collection - Forensics: the anatomy of crime

Forensics: the anatomy of crime at the Wellcome Collection

The exhibition is open from 26th February to 21st June 2015 at the Wellcome Collection. The show is accompanied by a range of public events and a book by crime writer Val McDermid, a joint publication by Wellcome Collection and Profile Books. This is a free exhibition and further information is available from Wellcome Collection.

More About the Wellcome on Infobarrel

Infobarrel offers a number of other very interesting articles:

Getting to the Wellcome

Forensics: the anatomy of crime - a 5* Exhibition

The Forensics: the anatomy of crime at the Wellcome Collection Fran5050 2015-02-24 5.0 0 5


Mar 27, 2015 9:57am
The scale models of crime scenes are tres kewl (as was this article). Good stuff--thumb.
Mar 28, 2015 12:49am
Vic - Thanks so much!
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