The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal

25 January 2019 - 7 April 2019

“…one of the most unusual, ravishing exhibitions of the season.”
— Roberta Smith, The New York Times

Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s drawings of the brain are both aesthetically astonishing and scientifically significant. The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal is the first museum exhibition to present these amazing works within their historical context.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Spanish, 1852-1934: "Glial cells of the mouse spinal cord," 1899, ink and pencil on paper. Courtesy of Instituto Cajal (CSIC).Scientists throughout the world know Cajal (1852–1934) as the father of the study of the structure and function of the brain—i.e. modern neuroscience. One of his most important discoveries was that individual cells called neurons make up the brain (most late-19th century scientists believed that the brain was a continuous, interconnected network). All research on the brain and brain-related diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are based on Cajal’s concept of the structure of the brain. Neuroscientists consider Cajal as crucial to their discipline as Albert Einstein is to physics. In 1906, Cajal was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on brain structure.

Cajal did not set out to be a scientist. He wanted to be an artist, but such a career path was not considered an appropriate ambition in rural Spain where he grew up. In his research, Cajal produced more than 3,000 drawings of the brain, and these detailed studies are as relevant today as they were a century ago. Their clarity and ability to express fundamental concepts about the brain have never been equaled. Cajal’s drawings are also informed by his training as an artist—he made choices and aesthetic decisions, arranging forms on paper in intentional ways and highlighting certain features for emphasis.

The centerpiece of The Beautiful Brain is 80 original drawings by Cajal lent by the Cajal Institute in Madrid, Spain. Contemporary neuroscience imagery provides a context for these remarkable works.

Special Tours:

Free guided tours of The Beautiful Brain, led by our docents at 1:30 PM on the following dates:

Wednesday, 13 February
Friday, 22 February
Wednesday, 27 February
Thursday, 28 February
Friday, 8 March (New! Just added!)
Wednesday, 13 March
Friday, 15 March
Friday, 22 March

Public Programs:

Friday, 25 January, 12:30-1:30 PM: Art for Lunch with Dr. Eric NewmanDrawing the Beautiful Brain: The Life, Art, and Science of Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Friday, 8 February, 6-9 PM: 2nd Friday ArtWalk: All About the Brain 
Featuring a Gallery Talk led by UNC neuroscientists + Ask a Neuroscientist!

Sunday, 17 February, 2-3 PM: Music in the Galleries: Cajal-Inspired Dance choreographed by Killian Manning

Tuesday, 19 February, 7-9 PM: Ackland Film Forum: Fantastic Voyage: Cinematic Journeys Into the Brain

Sunday, 24 February: Family & Friends Sunday: The Beautiful Brain, Inside & Out, featuring the return of Ask a Neuroscientist! and a screening of Disney’s Inside Out

Thursday, 28 February, 5:30-7:30 PM: K-12 Educator Open House featuring The Beautiful Brain. Registration Required.

Friday, 8 March, 6-9 PM: 2nd Friday Art Walk: Mapping the Mind featuring a public conversation about neuroscience and psychology, followed by a discussion of art and literature co-organized with Carolina Public Humanities followed by a guided tour of The Beautiful Brain (registration required for the art and literature event).

Sunday, 24 March, 2-5 PM: Music in the Galleries x Family & Friends Sunday: Brain-Inspired Dance, choreographed by Killian Manning


The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal was organized by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota with the Cajal Institute, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), Madrid, Spain.

The Ackland presentation of this exhibition has been made possible in part by generous support from Betsy Blackwell & John Watson and the UNC Neuroscience Center at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine.


Friends’ First Look at The Beautiful Brain
24 January 2019, 5:30-7:30 PM
Members and invited guests only

Want to be invited to special events at the Ackland?
Become a member today by calling 919-843-5637

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Spanish, 1852-1934: Epitelio y neuroglia primitivos de ratón (Glial cells of the mouse spinal cord), 1899, ink and pencil on paper. Courtesy of Instituto Cajal (CSIC).