Mind Maps: Experimental Psychology at the Science Museum
This new exhibition at the Science Museum offers a thought-provoking take on medical and experimental psychology through the centuries. Mind Maps is perhaps a slightly odd title for an exhibition that is less about our understandings of consciousness and more about experimentation into the mechanics of brain and nerve function. Thus, we explore two and a half centuries of brain biology, from the anatomical tables of seventeenth-century Padua to modern-day brain scanners and EEG sensor nets.
The circular route taken by the display means that the visitor can enter at either end, suggesting that there is not necessarily an obvious chronology to this story. Psychological research (like any form of scientific experimentation) is not one continuous progression toward a coherent truth, but a plethora of discoveries, mistakes, ideas, dead ends, and perennial questions. It's sobering to see 'behind the scenes', as it were, of a 1980s brain scanner. A handwritten note on the server door reads 'Please leave door open' (see below): a reminder that technology often requires human adaptation in order to function (in this case, to prevent the server overheating). Perhaps objects are not quite as objective as we sometimes think they are.
The small space of the exhibition is crammed with a fascinating array of items, most of which invite multiple interpretations. One case in particular caught my eye, indicating the frequent crossover between scientific and other models of understanding human health and illness. The late nineteenth and early twentieth-century batteries, pictured below, appealed to contemporary understandings of nervous energy as a finite source that might need replenishing by external means (electricity is a long-running theme through the exhibition). But many also depict religious symbols, linking them with other, more spiritual, forms of aid. Although constrained, at times, by the narrative, the exhibition has been sensitively curated by Curator of Psychology Phil Loring to encourage the viewer to consider many such connections. The limited text possible in a museum display thus often works to invite questions, rather than providing one authoritative voice.
Although many reviews have regarded this exhibition as portraying the changing treatment of mental illness over the ages, this does not appear to be me to be the main story. Instead, the display focuses on a variety of different ways of investigating the brain and nervous system (in health and illness), founded in the belief that these are the seat of our humanity. Where the topic of mental health is raised, however, it sits uncomfortably alongside this experimental drive. One question that ought to have been asked explicitly in this exhibition is: where does therapy end and experimentation begin (and vice versa)? It's certainly one that is hard to answer for many of the items on display here. The inclusion of alternative views - of subjects, as well as experimenters, perhaps - might have helped to give this concern greater consideration. Mind Maps is open until 12 August at the Science Museum.