May 5, 2006

A case for brains: Cornell's cerebral display gets refurbished home

The showcase exhibiting eight brains from Cornell's Wilder Brain Collection on the second floor of Uris Hall has been redesigned, restaged and relighted, thanks to the volunteer efforts of two undergraduate students, Bernadette Acuna '07 and Robyn Finkelstein '06.

The two friends undertook the project more than a year ago after Department of Psychology Chair Tom Gilovitch, knowing Finkelstein's interest in design, asked her to redesign the case. Finkelstein suggested a joint project to Acuna one day after a design class.

"I had had exhibit experience in the past. This project sounded really unique," said Acuna, a junior majoring in design and environmental analysis. "After seeing the brain display for the first time, I knew we could make it intriguing and more informative."

The two brainstormed a new case design, pitched their ideas to the Department of Psychology, which owns the brain collection, and got permission to go forward.

"We chose a vibrant maroon hue, designed new lighting, put lettering on the glass, compiled biographies and photos of the brain donors [with the help of Linda LeVan, executive staff assistant in psychology] and scanned and mounted the covers of books written by faculty members," explained Finkelstein, a psychology major in the College of Arts and Sciences who is headed to the Pratt Institute for graduate school in interior design in the fall.

The brainchild of Burt Green Wilder, M.D., a former Civil War surgeon who became Cornell's first animal biologist and founder of Cornell's anatomy department, the collection was launched in 1889. Wilder wanted to see if differences could be detected in size, shape, weight and amount of convolution between the brains of "educated and orderly persons" and women, murderers, racial minorities and the mentally ill. Eventually, it was concluded that such differences could not be detected, at least not by the naked eye or any 19th-century tools.

At its peak, the collection had at least 600 specimens, perhaps as many as 1,200, including human and animal brains as well as some body parts and fetuses. By the time Barbara Finlay, professor of cognitive and brain science, took over curating the collection in 1978, most of the specimens -- many more than 100 years old -- were dried up. All but 70 were purged; the eight selected for display, including Wilder's, were chosen because they had biographies to go with them. The rest are stored in a cramped Uris Hall basement closet.

Among the displayed brains are those of:

Another specimen of notoriety, though not on display, is a preserved piece of the infamous Cornell pumpkin that mysteriously appeared atop Uris Library's McGraw Tower one morning in 1997 and ranks as one of Cornell's most notable pranks. "We had a spare jar," noted Finlay.