We all love a good murder mystery, and there’s something about the committing and investigation of horrific crime that fascinates us. Whether your taste is for the gentle mystery of an Agatha Christie Poirot or Marple puzzle which is light on the gruesome details, or for the more graphic depiction of criminal activity in gritty dramas, chances are forensic investigation will have played a role somewhere. From fingerprint evidence to DNA samples the forensic elements in the process of identification and conviction of criminals fills countless books and TV shows every year.
This new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection examines the use of forensic evidence and its place in the process of detecting the perpetrators or crime. It takes you from the original crime scene, through the morgue, laboratory and ultimately to the courtroom, whilst giving an excellent overview of how practices and techniques have developed in the last century. Interweaved among the sometimes gruesome exhibits are some artistic works created by those inspired by the nature of death and decomposition, as well as insightful video interviews from those who collect, use and analyse forensic material as part of their work.
Investigators stat at the scene, so is a natural place for the exhibition to begin. The first thing you see is unexpected- what looks like a doll’s house with an open front but is actually a detail reconstruction of a house where a violent crime took place. Around the walls nearby are large scale colour photographs of reconstructed deaths in a bathroom and kitchen using dolls as proxy for the victim. It’s rather unsettling but an immediate insight into the way investigators need to understand the space in which the act took place. Now digital scanning is used to create a computerised image of the scene and a video explains how this works.
But things are about to get a lot more gruesome with photographs from real murder scenes, a piece of ‘art’ made from the floor on which the artist’s friend was murdered and some photographs that use luminol to show the remnants of blood spatterings many years after the crime took place. This really isn’t going to be an exhibition for the faint-hearted, but I found I became most squeamish about the behaviour of blowflies and maggots, attracted to the body, which are used to determine the time of death. Now I’ve seen a lot of Poirots and not once does the medical examiner ever mention maggots, even though this is their key method! Although, in this case I’m rather glad TV has lied to me.
Moving swiftly on, you enter the morgue and the techniques used to determine the cause of mysterious death – the autopsy. We learn that in France identifying dead bodies used to be a spectator sport and many a respectable Frenchman would pop down to the morgue for a bit of light entertainment – presumably on days when the opera or theatre was closed. There are some recreations and some real examples of injured body parts including a replica shattered skull, a pierced liver (as well as the knife that pierced it) and a brain showing the passage of a bullet. Alongside this are digitised index cards which tell the human story behind the work of the forensic pathologist including a woman who was hit by a motorbus, detailing her age, lifestyle and the condition of her organs, as well as the circumstantial details of the accident.
Once the relevant samples are collected, everything is then sent off to the laboratory for analysis, and in this section of the exhibition we learn about the development of finger printing techniques, charts with eye shapes and colouration, mug shots and more recently DNA sampling. It also includes some fascinating experiments with blood types and how the size and shape it leaves behind can indicate the nature of the death. So as well as seeing how different types of investigation have changed over time, this room shows that crime-solving techniques and scientific specialisms like toxicology and pathology were also developing along the way.
In the next room, the process returns to changes in search and identification techniques, where more human stories are emphasised. One interesting example is the use of head x-rays of a recovered body overlaid onto a photograph of a missing woman to prove it was her, and a touching video from the survivors of mass genocide in Chile who have spent more than two decades searching the desert for the remains of their relatives, becoming experts in identifying fragments of bone among the sand. It’s a sad reminder that while much of this exhibition has focused on individual crime, the expertise it unveils is also being used on a larger scale in the search for those lost in war and mass political crimes.
At the end of this detail process comes the moment in court and this final section gives examples of where forensic evidence has been used in trials, including the now contentious sentencing of the infamous Dr Crippen who was found guilty of murdering his wife, although recent DNA testing has cast doubt on this. So finally you get to hear from lawyers and those who have used forensics to actually prove their innocence, and questioning the role of the media in implying guilt before a trial has concluded.
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime is one of the best exhibitions running at the moment and completely free – although you will need to judge how much is suitable for children (after the first room it’s less gory). I liked the way it balanced the scientific knowledge with engaging human stories, while subtly mixing in examples of medical art and important historical texts. It cleverly, and rightly, avoids getting caught up in fictional portrayals of detectives, and maintains its proper scientific focus throughout. It will certainly open your eyes to the vast array of specialisms that modern forensic scientists and the police can use, which is some comfort in knowing that however anonymous the person may be, all of this knowledge is called upon to solve the crime. I may prefer my murder mysteries light and lacking in carnage, but I probably won’t look at Poirot the same way again.
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime is at the Wellcome Collection until 21 June and entrance is free, although timed entry by ticket may be in operation at busy times. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1.