Project (2018)

Collecting Brains: From the Lab to the Archive

I study the history and contemporary development of a Danish collection of 9,479 psychiatric brains collected without consent between 1945 and 1982. The brains were originally collected mainly for post mortem diagnostic reasons, but were kept with a view towards future research made possible by technological and conceptual developments within the field.

The collection was closed in 1982, when the brains were stored in remote basement rooms until being reinstituted in 2005 as a resource for biomedical research. In June 2017, the Danish council overseeing medical operations decided to discontinue funding to the collection, leaving its fate uncertain. If an external party has not expressed its wish to take over the collection before the end of 2017, it will be cremated. The ensuing discussion mingles together ethics, epistemic hopes and anxieties, economy, and politics. Understanding the historicity of the diverse positions is a key in disentangling the debate.

I engage with the brain collection as a scientific archive characterized by openness and opportunism. These characteristics prove to be a particular strength of the collection, as they allow a variety of unforeseen research alleys to emerge within diverse scientific fields. However, it also makes it difficult to argue for its concrete usefulness in a scientific environment increasingly focused on direct applicability and predictable research outcomes. The archival perspective is especially fruitful because it relates to the vocabulary used by the actors themselves, both historical and contemporary, and because it highlights the collection’s intricate relationship with time.