The brains behind an exhibition

Sara Perry writing on Savage Minds, this time with an interesting historical story about the Wellcome Collection’s recent “Brains: Mind as Matter” exhibition: “The travels of a head”.

In seeking out possible items to feature in Brains, I was reminded of a story that Id heard during my PhD research about the head of the pioneering British archaeologist and anthropologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942). Labelled the father of scientific archaeology (Sheppard 2010) for his significant (if very contentious) roles in defining field methodology and in shaping archaeological practice and collecting activity in Egypt and Palestine in particular, Petrie was said to have donated his own head to the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS) in London. Indeed, with some investigation (see Simon Chaplins contribution to Ucko 1998; Silberman 1999), it became clear that upon his death in 1942 in Jerusalem, Petries body was buried in a cemetery on Mount Zion, and his head returned to England with the express purpose of processing it in order to add his skull to the teaching and research assemblages at the RCS.* But, what is critical for my purposes is that the head was never processed as per Petries wishes.** Despite documented consent from Petrie for the use of his skull in the RCS collections, such consent has never been abided by, and his full head still stands off-limits today in the RCSs laboratories.

The whole story is a curious episode.

I wanted to link this for another reason. Sometimes people ask me how to quantify the effect of online activity, like blogs, for the purposes of putting this activity into the context of an academic career. The best approach depends on exactly what kind of audiences and communities are being served. Readership is an obvious measure, but it is essential to put the readership into the context of other field-specific activities. For some kinds of online activity, museum exhibitions and visits can be a good comparison. Perry notes in her post that the Wellcome Collection’s “Brains” exhibition across three months had 105,000 visitors. Some blogs will compare favorably to those numbers – for almost no investment of resources. My MOOC will be on this scale, again for vastly less money spent.

These activities are not the same, and it is useful to be explicit about the differences. Online activity can be vastly broader in terms of total visitors and international reach. Museum exhibitions can reach more deeply, with a bigger footprint, within a single local community. Museum exhibitions can demand and provide more sustained attention for the period when people are there; online activities can invite a more sustained engagement over longer periods of time.