Brains and Plasticising – Getting Past the ‘Squeam’ Barrier

Yesterday I went to the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition on ‘BRAINS’. I didn’t think I would be squeamish at all when looking at all these bottled noggins, part of what is eerily called ‘the spirit collections’.  In actuality I was in awe that these were ACTUAL BRAINS sitting there, only a few centimetres away from me and not protected by  a skull, meninges or skin.

For me, the thing that sends tingles down my spine is the idea of plasticising. Unfortunately, when I Google this too many ‘Images for…’ come up and slightly freak me out, meaning that a definition of the process is lacking in this blog. I can’t quite put my finger on why this really pushes the buttons of my squeamishness – maybe pumping a body with plasticiser conjures up ideas of something between ‘Planet Terror’ scenes involving Bruce Willis and ‘The Hulk’ when he expands and becomes green.

And although yesterday I was in a room filled with brains, suspended from their normal decomposition through submersion in methylated spirit and accosted by videos of brain surgery (pretty unnerving) the piece to really set it off for me was the plasticised vein system of the brain. Why? Well, after a discussion with a fellow brain fiend at the exhibit I began to ask myself what really is the difference between looking at a spirit collection and a plasticised body?

I used to have an issue with black pudding. The concept of eating what is essentially just blood was a bit gruesome, although I thoroughly enjoy vampire lore. But, after some careful thought I decided that if I eat steak rare and love haggis then really I have no feet to stand on when it comes to a justifiable argument for not eating black pudding. I love it.

I also love going to the stuffed animal section of museums, and have no problem looking at huge dinosaur fossil skeletons. And in all honesty, when it comes to looking at a plasticised animal I don’t feel quite as squeamish. In the Natural History Museum they currently have an exhibition on plasticised animals, and have a great big plasticised camel in the entrance hall on show.  When I first saw this I was intrigued and thought it looked great although I was not aware of the exhibition at the time I had a sneaking suspicion about what it was…but I decided to feign ignorance with myself and enjoy the show.

So maybe there is some sort of link here, I can look at animals in any form and not feel a huge sense of ‘squeam’ but that changes when it comes to humans being plasticised. Why? I read an interesting blog today about the Brains exhibit at the Wellcome Collection which touched on this slightly. He talked about the avoidance of things that make us remember our own mortality, even such important things as writing a will. Is this what makes me feel odd about plasticising? Possibly. But something more than that is the idea that these are people who have died and should be decomposing. They are not meant to be in this stasis, in these poses. You can, I hear, ask to be plasticised in your will so then possibly you could argue that they are meant to be like this. Maybe I feel that they should be allowed to rest, to be sitting in their graves and allowed to lie there for eternity rather than be put on display in all their stripped, plasticised glory. Maybe it is just something I would never want for me.  But this still doesn’t explain why I do not feel the same about a stuffed animal.

My brain fiend friend noted something else, he said that some people don’t like to be reminded that they are just an animal. Some people want to feel that humans are better than the world around them, more intelligent and some sort of higher being. However, we both agreed that it’s nice to be reminded that you are just an animal, a natural being that has evolved just like every other species on this planet. Sometimes it’s reassuring in such a fast paced and stressful world that we build ourselves. Seeing the inner workings of the human body puts us in our rightful place in the kingdom of life, in a comparable state to other species, such as what Darwin discovered and later many scientists would study: “…all hands start out in much the same way. There is a network of many genes that builds a hand, and all hands are built by variations on that same network. Some sculpt the wrist; others lengthen the fingers. It takes only subtle shifts in these genes to make fingers longer, to make some of them disappear, to turn nails into claws.” National Geographic Magazine, The Common Hand. Additionally, I just finished reading the book Prey by Michael Crichton – a good read for anyone feeling a bit high on the food chain.

To be honest, I think the reason I don’t feel the ‘squeam’ when I visit stuffed animal displays is because I have done so since I was a child. I did not think of my own mortality at that time, and certainly not that of any other animal. Also, crucially I had not encountered any horror films of books at that stage either!

In the end, I will be going to see the current plasticised exhibition at the Natural History Museum which is on until the 16th September. Regardless of squeamishness, knowledge and understanding of science is crucial and I would highly recommend everyone to get a grip and go see the dead plastic things.

Photo courtesy of Cameron Robinson