What lurks within Sigmund Freud’s couch? Rebecca Wallersteiner visits the Freud Museum, where a fascinating exhibition takes a look at the DNA traces left on one of the most iconic pieces of furniture in the world

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The psychiatrist’s couch: It’s here that patients reveal their wildest dreams, forgotten traumas and hidden phobias, or say whatever springs to mind before their therapist interprets their unconscious messages.

And it’s not unfair to say that Sigmund Freud’s couch is perhaps one of the most iconic pieces of furniture in the world.
Given to the founder of psychoanalysis by one of his patients, Madame Benvenisti, in about 1890, it is one of the centrepiece displays at the Freud Museum in Hampstead.

Earlier this year, the museum, together with the artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, hired a police forensic team to scrutinise traces of DNA left on the couch. In collaboration with the Lisson Gallery, the museum is now holding a fascinating exhibition of the scientist’s findings.

Broomberg & Chanarin: Every Piece Of Dust On Freud’s Couch runs until 22 November before travelling around the country. At the opening of the exhibition this week, curator Andreas Leventis told me: “The team found many examples, including strands of hair and a multitude of dust particles, from Sigmund Freud, his patients and his family.”

As part of the exhibition, you can see these traces magnified to huge proportions by a projector, in a fascinating slide show running continuously in Freud’s old study, located on the ground floor of the museum.

Broomberg and Chanarin  hired a forensic analysis of the couch's DNA

Broomberg and Chanarin hired a forensic analysis of the couch’s DNA

Two years ago, the Freud Museum’s curators worried about the deteriorating condition of Freud’s 125-year-old couch, which had begun to sag badly in the middle and was splitting along its seams.

“Thanks to generous private donations raising £5,000 and painstaking work by specialists, it has been restored to its original splendour,” says Carol Seigel, the museum’s director.

Covered with oriental rugs and cushions, it now looks remarkably comfortable and very similar to its early 20th century heyday when Freud’s patients reclined on it and recalled their deep-seated memories.

They included the ‘Wolf Man’, a rich Russian whose sister and father both tragically killed themselves, and was so nicknamed after a childhood dream he remembered while lying on the couch; the ‘Rat Man’, who suffered from obsessiveness; and ‘Dora,’ a troubled Jewish patient who Freud diagnosed as suffering from hysteria in 1900.
Dora’s real name was Ida Bauer and she was born into a family of affluent bohemian Jews. In recent years, her case has attracted renewed attention from feminist scholars. During the time Freud was treating her, Jews in Vienna became acutely aware of rising anti-Semitism. Her family’s pressure to suppress Dora’s fears and keep a stiff upper lip is likely to have exacerbated her complex psychological problems.

Broomberg and Chanarin 2Looking around the exhibition, it is remarkable to still be able see physical evidence that might belong to Freud and his long-dead patients. No doubt Freud, who himself was a scientist, would be fascinated by the forensic team’s findings.

The scientists’ samples were gathered from the Persian Qashqa’i rug, covering the couch, which was believed to have been given to Freud by his cousin Moritz Freud, an antique dealer. Rather like a security blanket, it accompanied Freud to London in 1938, when the rise of the Nazis forced him to flee Vienna.

The rug’s thick pile is covered in invisible household dust, most of which is keratin, the main protein of skin. It is also covered with hair and cloth fibres, rich in human DNA, belonging to Freud and his patients.

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Freud’s iconic psychoanalytic couch, on which all of his patients reclined

The rug remained on the couch, in Hampstead, until Freud’s death from cancer in 1938. He did not sit on the couch himself when analysing his patients, but sat out of sight next to it.

He once famously remarked to his friend, the psychoanalyst Hanns Sachs: “I cannot let myself be stared at for eight hours daily.”

Visitors to the exhibition will notice a slide show of the molecules collected by the scientists, which have been blown up to surreal proportions.

As well as being historically and scientifically interesting, the images are also delicately beautiful, rather like snowflakes.

“The artists have imaginatively incorporated the scientists’ discoveries into a series of high-resolution, radiographic quartz images – creating large woven tapestries, that mirror the scale and texture of the original covering,” says Leventis.

Looking around the rest of the museum, which next year marks its 30th anniversary, it’s fascinating to see the rest of Freud’s possessions, including his antiquities, books, furniture and prints.

Although Freud was not a practising Jew, he was very conscious of his Jewishness. This is reflected in the artefacts he collected, including an etching by Rembrandt of Menasseh ben Israel, who persuaded Oliver Cromwell to allow Jews back into England in 1656 and which you can see hanging in his study.

The exhibition, Broomberg & Chanarin: Every Piece Of Dust On Freud’s Couch, runs until 22 November at the Freud Museum, 20 Maresfield Gardens, London NW3 5SX. For more details, call 020 7435 2002 or visit www.freud.org.uk