Set of sixty miniature heads used in phrenology produced by William Bally in 1832. Image Credit: Science Museum, London
By Dolly Stolze / 09.08.2015
The Science Museum of London has a set of 60 eerie little plaster heads that look like miniature death masks. Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832), a well-known 19th century phrenologist, commissioned these bizarre relics to help his students study phrenology. As phrenology became popular in the early 19th century, practitioners needed reference collections to aid their research. Doctors and anatomists could easily acquire human skulls, often by robbing graves, for their phrenology collections. But the general public wanted affordable cranial libraries of their own and these tiny plaster busts would have satisfied that demand.
Phrenology, meaning study of the mind, was based on the idea that the brain was an organ of the mind. Practitioners believed that the mind has a set of mental faculties that are controlled by different areas of the brain, called brain organs. These “brain organs” could be large or small depending on an individual’s personality traits or intelligence. Phrenologists believed the shape of the skull would correspond to these organs, forming bumps and depressions. They believed that they could ascertain a person’s character and intellect by measuring these cranial features (Aldersey-Williams 2013).