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Behind the Mask – Research into the Noel Collection

By Nick J Booth, on 2 September 2015

This is a guest blog written by Bryony Swain, a UCL Student Volunteer who spent most of the last academic year (2014/15) cataloguing the Noel Collection of Life and Death Masks.

Hello, I’ve been volunteering with the UCL Museums and Collections department and loving it!

Dr. August Friedrich Gunther.  Photo courtesy of Alan Taylor.

Dr. August Friedrich Gunther.
Photo courtesy of Alan Taylor.

I have been cataloguing the excellent Robert Noel phrenological collection, which contains a large selection of plaster life and death masks from the mid 19th century. Phrenology studies the theory that skull configurations can determine character traits, and Noel made his collection to test and demonstrate the validity of this theory and wrote a book with measurements and biographical summaries to accompany them. Today, phrenology is considered a discredited pseudoscience, but in the 19th and early 20th century it was taken very seriously. Noel ordered the masks into different categories to prove that intellectual and moral individuals had a different skull shape to criminals and suicides.

Noel uses his book to demonstrate the scientific accuracy of phrenology, but his use of examples is highly subjective and anecdotal. For instance, whilst discussing Dr. August Friedrich Gunther, Noel recounts how Gunther introduced him to Dr. Seiler in 1833. Seiler had a collection of skulls and conducted an experiment on Noel. He laid out about 30 skulls and asked Noel to point out anything notable about them. Noel noted that none of the skulls had remarkable intellectual or moral capabilities, which could have been guesswork as, “the heads of distinguished people did not get into anatomical museums”. Noel subsequently picked out 5 skulls to be murderers and that one was a “banditti” who would have lead such a band of criminals, which of course was all true! Yet, Noel offers no scientific explanation for his attributions.

Dr. August Friedrich Gunther. Photo courtesy of Alan Taylor.

Dr. August Friedrich Gunther. Photo courtesy of Alan Taylor.

Noel is not objective or empirical in his examples and their subjective selection is also supported by many of the intellectual examples being Noel’s friends. On the other hand, Noel’s work shows how standards of science have changed throughout history.

Whilst cataloguing I decided to do more detailed research on the individuals behind the masks. I could have picked any one of them for this blog, but I came across Robert James Graves (1796-1853). After obtaining a medical degree in 1818 Graves travelled Europe extensively and for some time the artist Joseph Turner accompanied him. Graves was proficient in many European languages, which got him imprisoned in Austria accused of being a spy, as, quite rudely, they did not believe an Irishman could speak German so well. A great story Noel tells was when Graves was on a ship to Sicily. It came into trouble during a storm and the crew was about to abandon ship. Graves took control of the vessel, fixed the problem and got everyone to safety. In 1821 Graves returned to Dublin, and his impressive career as a physician began; Graves’ disease is named after him and he became the president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in 1843.

Dr. Robert James Graves. Photo courtesy of Alan Taylor.

Dr. Robert James Graves. Photo courtesy of Alan Taylor.

Noel’s book is an interesting source for biographical history because it adds personal stories. Noel writes how Graves asked his students not to openly discuss patient’s illnesses in front of them, instead to do so in Latin, so to ease their nerves. For Noel this accounts for Graves’ phrenological measurement of “Benevolence”. Although this further demonstrates Noel using an aspect of an individual’s life to support his theories, it provides insight into the everyday life of Graves’ that perhaps we would not have known otherwise.

The collection is a great insight into not only phrenology, but also perceptions of class, gender and criminality in the 19th century that has the potential to make a contribution to scientific and social history. In addition, the criminals and their cases would not have been known without Noel’s work.

Bryony Swain is a recent graduate from UCL History. 

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