The Robert Noel Collection of Life and Death Masks – what we know now.
By Nick J Booth, on 15 January 2016
The Robert Noel Collection of Life and Death Masks consists of 37 plaster casts made in Germany in the 19th Century. As the name suggests the plaster casts were taken of both the living and the dead, and were collected by Robert Noel (a distant relation of Ada Lovelace) to show the ‘truth’ of phrenology, which simply put was the study of the lumps and bumps in people skulls in the belief that this gave insight into a person’s character. In this blog I aim to tell the story of the collection (as we know it now) and gather links to the various blogs, videos, articles that are available online. Enjoy!
When I started working at UCL 4-ish years ago we knew almost nothing about the Robert Noel Collection of Life and Death Masks. In its life at UCL it had been on display in the Galton Eugenics Laboratory, the Slade School of Fine Art and (reportedly) at one point it’s been fished out of a skip. Now, thanks to the work of a number of UCL students, we know so much more – the names of the people represented in the collection, what Noel thought of them and the background to Noel himself. They have also been properly conserved and looked after, so they will survive for another 150 years or so.
I wrote my first ever solo blog on the collection in 2012…it’s wildly out of date now but I include it to show how far we’ve come. In it I say Noel was German (he was British), that there are 30 of them (there are 37) and that they came to UCL in 1911 (it was 1912).
The first major step in researching the collection came when one of the heads, number 34, was offered to a group of museum studies students as their second year ‘Collections Curatorship’ module. It was offered as the only object with original documentation – a label round the neck reading ‘”Irmscher N; 34, murderer, decapitated 1840″. The students went off and were able to discover a book listing the whole collection – they wrote a blog with a suitably punny name, and two students starred in a YouTube video which forms part of a set on the collection. This then led to a one day exhibition in UCL Art Museum for the UCL Festival of the Arts. They also gave a Museums Show-off talk on the subject.
Following on from this we were able to start using the collection more for teaching, on courses in UCL departments such as English, History and Psychology. Then a journalist from Buzzfeed got in touch and, after having written an article on Bentham, wrote one on the Noel heads. Needless to say this generated a lot more interest…
From the start of 2015 a UCL History student, Bryony Swaine, worked to catalogue the heads, which involved measuring them, assessing condition, transcribing biographical information on them, etc. She wrote not one but two blogs, one for us and one for the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland (it turns out one of our subjects was a past president and also helped to avert a shipwreck…).
Another UCL student, Dana Kovarek, who had been in one of the English seminars which featured a couple of heads, then started researching the history of Noel and phrenology in Germany (I gave her a pretty wide remit…). She’s already written one blog, and I won’t steal her thunder by revealing her findings (another blog post will be on its way soon I’m sure) but just to tease you – Noel appears to have been more important and better known that we realised, and closely linked to the Byron family…
Finally Young Woo, an MSC Conservation student at UCL who has been interning with our Conservation team has been carrying out a condition survey and consolidation work on the collection. He is scheduled to finish later this term.
The Noel Collection is a true teaching collection. What I mean by this is that all collections care work, research and all the other jobs required to look after the collection have been carried out by students, under supervision of UCL staff. We would know very little about the collection if it weren’t for their work. There are still lots of unanswered questions around the collection – such as why was Noel in Germany in the first place and just what did happen to the missing heads – and plenty more work needed to help us look after them for the future.
Nick Booth is Curator of the Science and Engineering Collections at UCL.