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Find the mind’s construction in the face: an exhibition of life and death masks

By zclef78, on 11 June 2014


I have to admit that this was my first visit to the UCL Art Museum. After walking past it twice, I finally stumbled across the entrance to this carnivalesque little treasure trove and almost immediately part of me wished I hadn’t.

Surrounded by rows of the plaster life and death masks of poets and murderers, professors and highwaymen, child prodigies and medics, it wasn’t very clear where in this bizarre spectacle you might want to begin.

Thankfully, it was at this point that Dr Carole Reeves (UCL Science & Technology Studies) swooped in to put what felt like a macabre examination of someone’s final moments into its historical context.

The masks were collected in mid 19th-century Dresden by amateur phrenologist Robert Nole to illustrate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ types of people.

Donated to UCL as part of the Galton Collection in 1911, they exemplify the trend in 19th century aristocratic circles for pseudo-scientific hobbies. Nole’s particular predilection was phrenology: the study of head morphology and the belief that it is intrinsically linked to a person’s character.

Noticing the mask of one murderer, Johanne Rehn, the bloody source of the line “there is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face” seemed particularly fitting. After throwing her two year-old daughter into a cesspit, she was convicted of infanticide and beheaded in front of a crowd of more than 20,000. The executioner missed twice, striking her in the head and face, in what Carole believes was a perverted form of grandstanding by the executioner.

It was with something between morbid curiosity and utter revulsion that I moved on to the next.  Leaning in closer to the mask of Mr Karl Irmscher, I noted that some of the eyebrow hairs were still attached…

Dr Nick Shepley (UCL English) was on hand to explicate the second theme of this exhibition. A striking feature of Nole’s scientific method was the way in which he set up his phronologic interpretations “constructing a biography of the deceased based on limited facts”. Nick explained that he wanted to explore notions of criminality and the socio-normative behaviour that influences us to define certain features as criminal.

Dr August Fruedrich Günther was one such character who sparked Noel’s interest. From Noel’s notes, which reveal that after Günther’s wife died he “had her buried without her skull which he had cut off, macerated and preserved”, Nick drew a comparison with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: “’The incursion of scientific experimentation, or intellectual curiosity, into the private or domestic domain is a recurrent literary theme, whether it be Dr Faustus, Dr Frankenstein or Dr Jekyll.”

Most of the information that went alongside the exhibition was a result of discoveries made by UCL MA Museum Studies students who were able to examine and research the heads as part of their degree. After finding Robert Nole’s book at the British Library, they managed to quite literally put a name to a face.

The heads lived in the Slade for a while before being rescued from a skip after some overzealous spring cleaning. They’ve recently been used to liven up the English Department’s London in Literature course but are not currently on display to the public. Given UCL’s tradition of keeping heads floating around, they may make a few future appearances.

Watch videos about the heads below:

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