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Days to go: 8. Talking brains with Dr Marius Kwint


Brains: The Mind as Matter proved to be the most popular exhibition ever staged at Wellcome Collection, a free venue in London for the ‘incurably curious’ that explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future.

Featuring more than 150 objects including brain specimens, medical and scientific devices, specially commissioned artworks, videos and photography, Brains followed the long quest to collect, classify, manipulate and decipher the most unique and mysterious of human organs, whose secrets continue to confound and inspire.

We caught up with Dr Marius Kwint, curator and author of the accompanying book, The Mind As Matter, to talk about his involvement with Wellcome Collection, why the exhibition proved so popular and his must-see Latitude performance!

Don’t miss Marius Kwint’s inspiring talk in the Literary Arena at Latitude 2012 and many more fantastic acts over the course of the weekend; head over to the website line-up section for full details.

Which latitude are you on right now?

In Winchester: in the middle of England, but not quite Middle England! It’s the historic capital of the ancient kingdom of Wessex, and once one of the most important cities in Europe, and it remains very beautiful and quite small. But I was raised in Suffolk - in Ipswich, to be precise - so I know the flatlands and big skies of East Anglia quite well too. My father, who was originally Dutch but emigrated to the US after WW2, was a teacher on the now abandoned Cold War US Air Force base at Woodbridge.

Tell us what to expect from your performance at Latitude this year.

Expect to see some brains! And to hear about them.

Can you give us some background on the Wellcome Collection?

Wellcome Collection is London’s free destination for the incurably curious. It’s located in a fine building opposite Euston Station. It includes a permanent collection of medical exhibits and the world famous Wellcome Library, a temporary exhibition space, state-of-the-art lecture, conference and performance facilities, a Blackwell’s bookshop and a convivial café!  It was formed in 2007 as part of the Wellcome Trust, Britain’s biggest charity for international research in the biomedical sciences and related arts and humanities. The Trust was founded by the bequest of pharmaceutical entrepreneur and extraordinary collector Henry Wellcome (1853-1936).

How did you become involved with the Trust? Tell us about the exhibition you recently helped curate.

I’m a lecturer in visual culture at the University of Portsmouth, but I’ve been involved with the Trust in various small consulting roles for at least a decade. I’ve got longstanding research, teaching and curatorial interests in science, art and design - sometimes relating specifically to brains. The Wellcome Collection has a licence for the display of human tissue, and has in recent years staged successful exhibitions on various parts of the human body and their cultural meanings—the heart, skin, and skeleton, for example.

So I suppose the brain was its next choice of organ, and Wellcome Collection invited me to curate an exhibition on this in 2010. I thought the show should basically be about the collecting of brains, an activity which has sometimes had a disturbing history. Of course several others contributed a lot to the curating process too, most notably Lucy Shanahan of Wellcome Collection, who was wonderful at finding exhibits and showing me the ropes. The exhibition ran from late March to mid-June this year, and was the most popular that the Wellcome had ever staged, attracting over 1,400 visitors on average per day, and worldwide press coverage.

Some of this public interest may have been because we had parts of a few famous brains on display, including computer pioneer Charles Babbage’s, body-snatcher William Burke’s, and a couple of microscope slides showing thin sections of Albert Einstein’s brain.

Who’s your must-see performance at Latitude 2012?

There’s too many to choose from! I’m looking forward to seeing Lang Lang, Paul Weller, Benjamin Zephaniah, Tony Harrison, John McCarthy...

If any artist could do a guest appearance with you at Latitude who would that be and why?

I’m not sure he’d describe himself as an artist, but (besides my interviewer Hannah McGill, of course) I’ve long been an admirer of John Pilger.

Tell us a surprising fact about you

I’ve recently worked as a guide for visually impaired triathletes at the European and World championship para-triathlon races, helping them to swim, bike and run safely.

What’s been your weirdest festival experience?

OK, I’ll confess: I’m a festival virgin! I’ve never actually been to a proper stay-over festival like this before...

It’s our seventh edition…summarise Latitude in seven words

Eclectic, stimulating, summery and warm (I hope!)

Fill in the gap, “Baa baa Latitude sheep, have you any________?"

Cerebral cortices

See you at Latitude!