Museum of Nature investigates the human brain in major summer exhibition

Brain: The Inside Story. Photo: American Museum of Natural History

I think therefore I am is Rene Descartes‘ famous statement of human awareness. Embedded in that sentence is the fundamental reality of the human brain, that marvellous and still mysterious organ that controls our every function.

Understanding our brain and understanding the implications of what it does for us underpins a new exhibition called Brain: The Inside Story that is  running at the Canadian Museum of Nature this summer.

The show, which originated with the American Museum of Natural History, features the kind of interactive displays often seen in museum exhibitions that let the visitor reach out to a neuron gesture table showing how brain cells connect and communicate with each other, for example. The exhibits are all designed to help put this most central of all human organs into sharper focus.

Immediately upon entering you are greeted by an installation created by the Spanish artist Daniel Canogar who flashes light onto a tangle of wire that represents the way information is transmitted in a brain.

Canogar has a similar art piece that represents the growing brain inside a fetus.

Nearby is an odd looking humanoid creature called a homunculus that features distended features that show which part of the body are demanding the most of the brain’s attention.

Then there are sections on conditions that afflict the brain such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The museum has partnered with the Ontario Brain Institute to put on this show. The OBI has provided an activity zone that shows how one can Take Care of Your Brain through diet, exercise and a good night’s sleep.

The brain is even taking over the Museum’s regular Nature Nocturne on May 25.

Along with other events, over the course of the summer there will be a number of speakers will be using their grey matter to address topics such as pediatric concussions, drugs and the brain, and the brain and aging. For the details on all the talks and on other brainy activities please see

The idea an exhibition on a human organ speaks to an evolving interest at the Museum of Nature  in the place of humans in the natural world, said Meg Beckel, the president and CEO of the institution.

“We are excited to be presenting some insights on the brain,” she said. “The exhibition explores the brain as the centre for sensing, thinking, emotions and also how 21st century technology and research are revising our idea of what the brain is and how it works.”

Beckel also explained that the exhibit fits within the scope of a museum dedicated to understanding the natural world, basically because human beings are part of that world.

“As the world is now in what is commonly called Anthropocene era, the place of humans and our role in shaping our environment is more central, more important than ever. As Canada’s national museum of natural history and natural sciences, we feel it is a really important that we consider the place of humans among the many other living things that populate our planet.”

Learning about the brain helps increase the understanding of humanity’s place in the natural world, she said adding that in the future she says there will be more of these types of exhibits.

She said in an interview that the exploration of the human side of nature is something that is emerging more and more in the institution’s thinking about explaining the world to visitors.

“Historically natural history museums it’s plants, animals, fossils and minerals. We didn’t really talk about how humans are connected in our natural world. Increasingly we are introducing that. So if you look at the Earth Gallery, for example, we have a whole section on mining and minerals and our dependence on what we pull from the earth. We also talk about how we are affected by the earth such as through earthquakes and volcanos.

“We aren’t above it all, we don’t control it.” In the museum’s Arctic Gallery, she said, the museum really introduced people in the story of the region, “rather than as solely a source of resources. We are reminding ourselves that we really need to understand ourselves in nature, as part of nature. We are mammals. We can’t separate ourselves from our natural environment otherwise we will never learn from nature.”

The exhibition is on the fourth floor of the building. There is an extra $10 charge on top of the normal museum admission. Thursday evenings it’s free to enter the museum. The surcharge for the exhibition still applies.

Brain: The Inside Story runs until Sept. 3.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.