But the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime illustrates how many of the key ingredients of modern forensics, in particular the use of scientific practices such as medicine and entomology to determine when, how and by whom a crime was committed, can trace their origins much further back in time than most of us might realise. The word ‘forensics’ derives from the Latin forensis, meaning ‘of the forum’, the building in which criminal trials took place in ancient Rome. The book Xi Yuan Lu (or the ‘Washing Away of Wrongs’), written in thirteenth-century China by Song Ci, is considered the first written account of medical evidence being used to solve crimes. The exhibition even contains a 15th-century book produced in Mainz, Germany called Ortus Sanitatus containing illustrations that appear to show flies arriving at the body of someone recently deceased, and then multiplying as the body decays. These images are particularly interesting for historians of medicine as they seem to contradict the view that was widely held in the Middle Ages known as spontaneous generation, which maintained that maggots – and subsequently flies – were actually created by the rotting flesh of the corpse.
Intriguingly, the exhibition’s structure runs not chronologically through the history of forensics, but chronologically through a crime. Beginning with the act itself, through the examination of all the evidence that it left behind, and ending with the presentation of that evidence in court. Its division into five distinct sections works especially well, particularly in the second room, the morgue, with its chilling and sterile atmosphere, which comes complete with a ceramic post-mortem table that, judging by the marks on it, was well-used (by the mortuary in Rotherhithe, from the 1920s to the 1940s, to be exact). If you wish to fully immerse yourself in this space, then there is a pair of headphones close to the post-mortem table where you can listen to the soundtrack of an autopsy, but personally, I could only bear it for a few seconds of it before my stomach began to churn! Amazingly, the word ‘morgue’ comes from the French morguer, the verb ‘to peer’, since the world’s first morgue opened in Paris in 1864 and was a public space in which people could come and peruse corpses as and when they wished. Such was the popularity of the morgue that it was even cited by Paris guide books as a must-see visitor attraction.
Whether it be the shape of the droplet of blood on the wallpaper, the exact temperature of the room a decomposing body was found in, or the marks left on a bullet made by the barrel of a gun as it was fired, the crucial clue that might crack a crime can come in many forms. And so it is that modern forensics represents a combination of many different branches of science, which draws on a wide range of expert knowledge and experience (anatomy, archeology, botany, toxicology, psychology, ballistics, genetics… to name but a few). The exhibition shows not only how these many branches of science came together to help the police catch criminals, but also emphasises the crucial role played by the arts, the media, and by wider society’s increasing fascination with the darker side of human nature, in bringing forensics, as we know it, into being. Apart from anything else, the exhibition’s blend of history, science and art makes it entertaining throughout. I cannot think of any exhibition I have visited where I have experienced a sequence as varied as a cabinet of old manuscripts, followed by a set of beautiful eighteenth-century Japanese watercolours, and then a video all about how flies infest human corpses (an enthralling watch, by the way, worth sticking with until the end).
Art has itself served as one of the principle tools of forensics from the very beginning. Both before and after the invention of photography, artists, illustrators, cartographers and model-makers all had an important role to play, but photography is perhaps the most obvious example of an artform that made a significant impact on forensics (forensics, in turn, was to influence and shape photography as an artform). The American photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig began his career photographing crime scenes, often managing to arrive before the police by intercepting their radio transmissions and learning of the location of a reported crime, before going on to work in Hollywood. On display is the oldest camera contained in the Metropolitan Police archive, believed to have been used to photograph the mutilated body of Jack the Ripper’s final victim, Mary Jane Kelly, in 1888. Even more chilling are the gruesome photographs taken by Alphonse Bertillon, who built a very tall tripod that allowed his camera to be mounted directly above a murder victim’s body, and photograph the floor of the room from above. His technique became known as the “God’s eye” view. As well as being extremely useful for investigators looking for clues, these were and still are incredibly haunting images.
Along with the works of art relating directly to the history of forensics, there are also several works of contemporary art that examine the complex attitude that human beings have towards death, and how individuals, communities and wider society come to terms with it. Teresa Margolles’s collection of Mexican tabloid front covers, featuring graphic photographs of people killed in the streets during the country’s bloodiest ever year in the history of drug trafficking (2010), holds a mirror up to the media and the wider public’s insatiable appetite for violent crime, while Turner prize-winning Christine Bolard’s sculptures, created by reconstructing the faces of two unknown and unidentified human skulls, have echoes of the legendary L’Inconnue de la Seine. Based on a death mask made of an unknown girl dragged from the filthy waters of the River Seine, her face became something of a must-have ornament in the more bohemian households of early twentieth-century Paris. The most arresting of all the artworks for me were Taryn Simon’s photographic portraits of people convicted of murders who, having served many years in prison, had been acquitted and released in light of new evidence. Each is photographed in the place where they were arrested. Coming right at the very end of the exhibition, these pictures are a poignant reminder of how forensics, while capable of bringing criminals to justice can also, sometimes, be responsible for the conviction of the innocent. Like all sciences, it is by no means perfect.
Today’s inexhaustible supply of films and television shows about murder investigations has created a world where the image of the lab-coat-wearing, crime-scene combing, bent-over-a-dead-body forensic scientist, is one that is very familiar to us. Perhaps that was why I found it more interesting to learn about what it actually feels like to do it, rather than learning about the processes involved in being a forensic scientist. The exhibition features a number of incredibly insightful interviews with those who make their living from examining the dead. The Natural History Museum entomologist who spends his weekdays studying the life cycle of flies, and carrying out experiments such as putting a corpse in a suitcase and seeing how long it takes for flies and maggots to infest the body, says he still finds it amazing every time he looks at a larvae under the microscope and sees the rough outline of a fly’s head and thorax as it develops. Then there are the scientists who must present their findings to a judge and jury in court, knowing that the evidence that they have unearthed – and, crucially, their interpretation of that evidence – could prove decisive in either convicting or clearing a suspect. And there is also the mortician who remarks how it is being able to successfully reassemble a body that has been smashed to pieces, in order for relatives to look upon the deceased for one last time and say goodbye, that is the most rewarding part of the job.
In this way, this exhibition is both a study of forensics, but also a study of the human condition, and of the curious ways that people come to terms with the violent death of someone they love. There is a very moving extract from Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia de la Luz, a documentary about a group of mothers and sisters of the victims of massacres carried out by General Pinochet’s regime in Chile, who have spent more than twenty-five years trawling the sands of the Atacama desert looking for human remains. That someone would go to such extraordinary lengths to recover a few bone fragments of someone who has already been dead for decades struck me as incredibly strange, but, for one woman, it was only when she unearthed the foot of her brother – with sock and shoe still attached – that it really hit her that he was dead.
In another of the exhibition’s interview segments, a forensic scientist tells the story of when she travelled to Kosovo and helped a man who, after his family had been killed when a rocket-propelled grenade struck their trailer, had been forced to hastily bury their mutilated remains in a single grave under cover of darkness. She recalls how gratifying it was that she and her team were able to exhume them, identify which remains belonged to each of the man’s family members, and how much it meant to him to be able to re-bury his wife, sister-in-law and four sons in separate graves. It seems that the human desire for ‘closure’, in the shape of laying a body – or even fragments of a body – peacefully to rest, is as innate as the desire to bring a perpetrator of a violent crime to justice. And thus, it is as important an objective of forensics as convicting criminals.
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime runs at the Wellcome Collection until 21st June 2015. Entry is free (please note that the exhibition is closed on Mondays).