Brain Collecting: the Berlin Museum of Medical History

Brain Collecting: the Berlin Museum of Medical History
Published: Aug 06, 2015
A photo-essay by Daniel Alexander with text by Dr Marius Kwint, taking us behind the scenes at the Berlin Museum of Medical History in preparation for Brains: the Mind as Matter, an exhibition held at the Wellcome Collection in London in 2012, and relocating to the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester from late July 2013.


BERLIN — The Berlin Museum of Medical History inhabits the north-east corner of the Mitte campus of the Charité Hospital, just over the river from the gleaming Central Station and the renovated Reichstag. The hospital was founded by Frederick I of Prussia in the early 18th century as quarantine against plague, a workhouse for beggars, a maternity hospital for unmarried mothers, and later a teaching hospital for military doctors. Many of its present red-brick buildings date from the Wilhelmine period before World War I, and, though much restored and rebuilt, still bear the scars of fighting in World War II.

The museum is noted for its anatomical collections, a selection of which are on display in the public galleries, with a warning that they may prove upsetting to some visitors, and the disclaimer that many of them came from an era before the consent of donors or their families was always sought. Anatomy museums were once standard features of major teaching hospitals in the late 19th and 20th centuries, when they were considered essential for showing examples of mainly abnormal organs and body parts to medical students and researchers. Specimens were usually preserved in alcohol, glycerine or formaldehyde in specially made glass jars.

Few anatomy museums were or remain open to the public — notable exceptions being the Hunterian at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in London, the Mutter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia — but to those who do visit they soon become familiar with their taxonomy of key phenomena, from hydrocephalic skulls to two-headed babies. The anatomy collections at the Charite were assembled and made publicly accessible by the famous pathologist Rudolph Virchow (1821-1902), who developed the Cell Doctrine — the idea that in order to understand the progress of disease, one had to examine the basic units of life.

The brain has been penetrated, cut, removed, stolen, sliced, stained, preserved, stored, and turned into meaningful imagery in the search for an objective account of the human psyche . . . 

This photo-essay by Daniel Alexander shows the storage of mainly brain specimens not on public display, in the cellars and recesses of the Museum and adjoining hospital buildings. It was commissioned for an exhibition that I guest curated, with Lucy Shanahan, at the Wellcome Collection in London between March and June 2012. Entitled Brains: the Mind as Matter, the show considered the brain as an object, and the changing understanding of our sovereign organ over the past five centuries.

Rather than offering a didactic account of how the brain works, the intention was to present the brain as a substance within the visual and material culture of the biomedical sciences. Brains were to be conceived less in terms of abstract neural connections, and more as a bodily reality. We explored how the brain has been penetrated, cut, removed, stolen, sliced, stained, preserved, stored, and turned into meaningful imagery in the search for an objective account of the human psyche, and its variations, capacities, and maladies. Exhibits included not only wet specimens of famous brains in jars and histological thin sections for microscopic analysis (including those from Albert Einstein), but also surgical instruments, photographs and videos of brain operations, and contemporary artworks reflecting on what it means to possess and manipulate the clump of fragile and gelatinous tissue that we hold to be the seat of the mind. The show proved to be extremely popular, attracting widespread press coverage and a record number of visitors.


The practice of collecting was central to our narrative. The encyclopaedic comparison and classification of specimens became a key method for the imperialistic natural sciences in the 19th century, and the emerging brain science was no exception. Once methods for preserving putrescent neural tissue were invented, scientists began to gather brains with the intention of classifying their original owners as normal or abnormal, sick or healthy, genius or idiot, respectable or criminal. Ambitious anatomists published lists of the brain weights of eminent persons, and their journals were embellished with biographical detail, attempting to correlate the observed traits of notably gifted, depraved or disabled individuals in life with the measurable properties and descriptions of their brains in death. A few ‘anthropometric’ brain collections were established in France, the US, Japan, Russia and Sweden in the hope of identifying the substrate of genius, and were graced with the cerebral matter of statesmen and men of letters, including Vladimir Lenin and the writer Anatole France, with one of the lightest brains on record.

Indeed it became quite the fashion for the enlightened classes to bequeath their illustrious grey matter for investigation by their colleagues by means of ‘brain clubs’ — a story engagingly told by Brian Burrell in his book Postcards from the Brain Museum (2004). The progressively-minded anatomist Burt Green Wilder founded one at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and you can still see the remnants of his resulting collection of the brains of ‘Educated and Orderly Persons’ as well as ‘Unknown, Criminal or Insane Persons’. The hefty grey matter of the infamous philologist Edward H. Rulloff, who seemed to defy these twin categories and was hanged for murder in 1871, can now be seen on display next to the brains of his more reputable fellow-intellectuals in the corridors of the Psychology Department. While such anthropometric brain-collecting fell into disrepute along with the whole apparatus of eugenics and scientific racism after World War II, modern brain banks, equipped with super-cold freezers, are again flourishing for the purposes of research into degenerative disorders and other neurological conditions that threaten to reach epidemic proportions among the ageing populations of the affluent world.

Neuroscientific collecting has also had an enduring impact on popular culture through the image of the brain in the jar, resting pale, resentful and bloodless in its clear suspension, as if waiting to be reconnected with the world to wreak its heartless revenge. It has proved fertile ground for fears and fantasies about agency, identity and control, from the time of James Whale’s Frankenstein of 1930, with, in a flagrant travesty of Mary Shelley’s original 1818 novel, a blundering Igor substituting the ‘dysfunctio cerebri’ of an executed criminal for a nobler specimen. This was followed by a host of B-movie classics, such as Donovan’s Brain of 1953, starring a future Nancy Reagan and the eponymous organ, which exerts its malevolent control by telepathy; or the BBC TV Dr Who series in 1976, The Brain of Morbius, featuring the wired-up cortex of an intergalactic super-villain. A related fantasy informed the ‘brain-in-a-vat’ hypothesis discussed by the Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam in 1981. In this thought-experiment — an update on speculations running through Plato and Descartes — Putnam reasoned that he could not be a mere brain connected to a supercomputer providing the illusory sensation of volition and perception. All these fictions play on the biologically absurd but ideologically plausible notion that humans are ultimately reducible to their brains: a rationalistic dream that depends on a particular class standpoint, where the only valuable work is intellectual, not manual.

The Charité brain collections shown in Alexander’s photographs are not anthropometric, but pathological, and so comprise brains with various tumours and other patently organic diseases and malformations. They are the predecessor of the modern brain-bank. However, they offer a case-study in the practice of archiving, packed with incidental metaphors about what we believe the apparatus of the mind to be, from the reticulated pipes and cables running throughout the cellars, the compartmentalised vaults, and the library-like design and arrangement of the jars, their contents visible through their spines. Many of the details are aesthetically fascinating in their own right, such as the elegant labels reflecting their somewhat modernist, 20th century graphic origins. At the time of my visit, in the course of my research for the exhibition during August 2011, the spare brains had just been moved from their resting-place in the chapel adjoining the wing containing the anatomy theatre, the museum and the dissecting-rooms, as this interior was about to be restored, the resolute motto above its rose-window repainted, and bomb damage to the roof repaired. The shelves, with their label ‘Gehirn’ (Brains), now stood empty for the first time in over 50 years, amid the builders’ paraphernalia and materials.

I was shown around by Navena Widulin, prosector and preparer of specimens for the museum. She told me that she had developed a love of anatomy thanks in part to her Siberian father, who had taught her to hunt and skin rabbits as a child. Her office contains her remarkable collection of gallstones, sorted and arrayed like beads in little plastic boxes; on her desk are work-in-progress wax moulages of grisly forensic specimens from recent police investigations.

The museum is very much part of a working hospital, adjoining dissecting rooms and an anatomy theatre, whose steep steps, Widulin says, can be hazardous to students as they rush out feeling faint. Here, behind the public façade, not only was there a powerful sense of place, but the buildings were an important part of Berlin’s great palimpsest of European history, ever being modernised while leaving clearly visible signs of its influential, dramatic and at times traumatic past. The fabric of the city is, as one taxi-driver put it to me while passing yet more pock-marked walls, “like a memory”.

. . . The brain has itself been constructed through the apparatus of science and history.       

It all seemed ripe for a photographic essay that would help to convey the setting of a brain collection within the exhibition, and also stand as a documentary artwork in its own right. Previous photographers had published images from behind the scenes of the Charité, but I was not convinced by the technical or artistic proficiency of these. I had, however, been impressed by Daniel Alexander’s previous photographic and video work on the ongoing archiving, design and funereal  processes of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the former killing fields of Flanders, where the soil still yields the remains of the missing from the Great War nearly a hundred years on. When I approached him, his grasp of both concept and practicalities was immediate. We discussed how it might best be done: he proposed a Sinar large format camera using a 5 x 4-inch film, which would offer exceptionally detailed resolution, and to print them very large for the exhibition (the signature image was produced at 90 x 72 inches and mounted on aluminium).

The ensuing photo-shoot over a November weekend, with other projects also on our agenda, was hard work in a sometimes challenging location: bright and sharply cold outside, but hot, dusty and smelling of formalin in the cellars, surrounded by things in jars that were often disturbing, and with limited means of lighting. But we were pleased with the results. The images suggest how the brain, the means by which we perceive and construct the world around us, has itself been constructed through the apparatus of science and history.





DR MARIUS KWINT is Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture at the University of Portsmouth.

DANIEL ALEXANDER is Senior Lecturer and Course Leader BA(Hons) Photography at the University of Portsmouth.

All images: © Daniel Alexander, produced with support from the Wellcome Collection.

IMAGE CAPTIONS from top to bottom, left to right:

1. The north-east corner of the Campus Charité Mitte, Berlin, near the Medical Museum. Elevation left to right: autopsy room and pathology laboratories; chapel with rose window; anatomy theatre (showing bomb damage from World War II).
2. West door of chapel and cellar storage of anatomy specimens.
3. North end of the chapel undergoing renovation, with recently vacated cabinets where brain specimens had been stored since the 1950s. The cabinets are marked ‘Gerhirn’ (brains). The motto around the rose window reads “Christ Is My Life; Death Is My Victory”.
4. The cellars of the Medical Historical Museum.
5. The specimen on the right marked with a red dot is the brain of a woman who suffered a gunshot wound to the head aged 19 and survived into late middle age.


• Brian Burrell, Postcards from the Brain Museum: the Improbable Search for Meaning in the Matter of Famous Minds (New York: Broadway Books, 2004).
• Marius Kwint and Richard Wingate, Brains: the Mind as Matter (London: Wellcome Collection, 2012).
• Carl Zimmer, Soul Made Flesh: the Discovery of the Brain and how it Changed the World (London: Arrow Books, 2005).


This article was first published in The Journal of Wild Culture, March 13, 2013.


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