A cerebral experience in the heart of Lima
The human brain has an austere, almost gothic beauty. It’s not something I’ve ever contemplated but it’s hard to avoid introspection when you’re standing in a room lined wall to wall with pickled cerebrums.
Each of these 300 floating organs, plus the 2910 others kept in storage at Lima’s Museo del Cerebro, was once a sentient being. Now they’re just brains in a museum, struck down by a litany of awful illnesses. Every jar is labelled with the malady that claimed its brain: Alzheimers; Parkinsons; Tapeworms (cystisercosis); Tumours; Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease. Haemorrhages manifest as ominous black blots in the cerebral cortex; toxoplasmosis leaves an angry face imprinted on the grey matter.
Museo del Cerebro, which opens mornings from Monday to Saturday, is a macabre but fascinating place. Part of Peru’s National Institute of Neurological Sciences, its vast collection of brains is one of the world’s largest. Each specimen belongs to a former patient of the institute, which oversees the neurological treatment throughout the country and also functions as a specialist hospital. The museum might seem an unlikely tourist at- traction but it receives 5000 visitors a year; the point of putting these grim relics on display is to show people how easily brain damage can occur and, in some cases, how to avoid it. “People can see what brain diseases look like and realise that many can be prevented,” says neuropathologist Dr Diana Rivas, the museum’s director.
Today all Peruvian medical students come to the institute to study the neuropathological specimens, but another main focus is educating school students. Displays emphasise the consequences of poor hygiene, excessive alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, and chronic diseases such as hypertension and high cholesterol.
It was one of Rivas’s predecessors, Luis Palomino, who first collected the brains – amassed since the institute’s first autopsy in 1942 – and put them on show. The institute occupies foundations laid in 1700 as one of Lima’s first asylums. “Initially and until about 50 years ago this was an asylum run by the nuns of St Vincent de Paul,” Rivas says. “Many families abandoned their chronically ill relatives here.”
Located in the once-prosperous neighbourhood of Barrios Altos and overlooked by the pastel-painted slums of San Cristobal Mountain, it feels less like an institution than a place of religious pilgrimage. There are chapels everywhere, dedicated to St Michael, St Vincent and the Virgin, among others. Rivas cites a local legend that contends Jesus once appeared at the hospital and decreed it should become a centre for incurable diseases. Hence the preoccupation with prayer. Occasionally, and touchingly, villagers make pilgrimages from the remote Andes to visit departed relatives. Each exhibit is fastidiously catalogued so it’s easy to locate who they’re after.
“We leave the family member alone in a room with the brain inside a bottle,” Rivas says. “I saw one man take off his hat and strike up a conversation with the brain as if it were a living person. I think he cried a bit, too. One family has been to visit their relative’s brain three times. I have little knowledge of how people worship their ancestors in the mountains, but it felt like a powerful veneration.” • limaeasy.com • lan.com • adventureworld.com