Newsletter Subscription
Print Subscription
Change Address
Cabinets of Dr. Cushing
Move over Mütter, Yale School of Medecine has a new museum of brains.
A ramp leads to the sub-basement museum where some 600 carefully preserved brain specimens are on display.
Terry Degradi

It may have been a coincidence of proximity that landed New Haven architect and Yale professor Turner Brooks the job of designing a final resting place for the collection and archive of legendary brain man, Dr. Harry Cushing, but it was also highly serendipitous.

Few architects currently in practice have the imaginative flair and game interest in challenges that Brooks has demonstrated with a small but impressive output, from his days as a design-build architect in Vermont construing idiosyncratically-shaped homes of storybook resonance, to the inspired sensitivity he brought to the ecological and psychological nuances of a campus design for autistic children in Upstate New York, championed by Temple Grandin.

The story of the recently completed Cushing Center begins with 600 perfectly preserved brains lost and then found deep-sixed somewhere beneath the Yale School of Medicine. Dr. Cushing basically created the field of brain surgery, along with many of the techniques and even the instruments still in use today. A Yale man through and through, he bequeathed his incredible collection of tumorous brains, journals, photographs, and rare books to Yale on his deathbed in 1939. Then they disappeared, resurfacing only a few years ago.

Inside the Brain Museum

Clockwise from top: Brain specimens on display in the museum; a ramp leads into the center of the museum space; glass and wood cabinets; and a model of the museum space.

Brooks, who teaches in the core curriculum at the Yale School of Architecture, wanted to translate Cushing’s own determined questing into a design conveying a sense of the mystery of inquiry and discovery. The site was not only tight—at 1,650 square feet—but underground beneath the medical school library, disadvantages for a museum that Brooks happily manipulated to the service of his subject. And so, visitors enter at the head of a staircase leading downward and marked only by a periscopic column of glass, a vitrine announcing  current exhibitions while giving subtle notice of what’s doing below. From the stair, one steps onto a ramp that spirals even lower but now flanked by LED backlit brain specimens in display jars. “Sounds ghoulish,” Brooks said, “but it’s cheery and quite beautiful, like a chorus line in the glow of the footlights.”

The convoluted path—rather appropriate given the brain’s own infinite folds—ends in a wide display area where the collection is offered up in a rich multiplicity of ways, inspired according to Brooks, by John Soane’s famous house in London. Drawers open to reveal instruments; cabinets pull out into layers and layers of displays; even the counters are vitrines for presenting books, journals, and photographs. An elongated counter extension turns into a research desk while an “archivist’s nest” signals the entrance to the seminar room with space-saving and elegantly carpentered efficiency. A small seminar room devoted to furthering Cushing’s own enlightened approach to neurosurgery is off to one side.

Here architecture is a cabinet of curiosity where the subject contained and the container itself are inseparably joined, and, as Brooks said, “ready to be mined.”

Julie V. Iovine