Head casts of notorious criminals and great thinkers go on show in Manchester

By Lily Pritchard | 19 December 2013

Forget wild beasts and circus troops, conjurors and tumblers - Phrenology rears its head as this year's Christmas must-see exhibition

A photo of rows of sculpted white skull heads of plinths against a black background
William Bally's miniature phrenological heads are part of the Brains exhibition in Manchester© Science Museum, London
When The Phrenological Gallery was shown at the Manchester Mechanics Institution on Cooper Street during the 1840s, it included casts of the faces and heads of famous great minds including military leaders, poets and chemists. It also displayed the casts next to those taken from criminals at Strangeways Prison.

Extremely popular with affluent Victorians but now a discredited science, phrenology was the study of the shape of heads to determine character traits.

Scientists used to believe that a person's character could be mapped using the contours of their cranium. The size of skulls and brains was used as an indicator of intelligence.

William Bally was considered to be one of the best practical phrenologists in England, carrying out his consultations in his studios on King Street in Manchester.

Sixty of the miniature heads made by him are now displayed alongside more than 160 other artefacts, including real brains, at an exhibition called Brains: The Mind As Matter being held at the Museum of Science and Industry.

The exhibition follows the human quest to manipulate and decipher the most unique and mysterious of human organs.

In January 1844, the Manchester Guardian suggested a viewing of the Phrenological Gallery as a thoughtful form of festive entertainment, as opposed to the traditional pantomimes and circuses.

Pondering in an article, a reporter for them wrote: “Perhaps, amidst pantomimes and panoramas, wild beasts and circus troops, conjurors and tumblers - the most prominent and puffed amusements of the Christmas holidays – the really solid, rational, and, to an intelligent and reflecting mind, more attractive nature of this interesting exhibition has been too much lost sight of”.

Most people wouldn’t normally consider a trip to view an exhibition featuring thousands of cast heads as a fitting Christmas activity. But it’s obviously a no-brainer.

"Phrenology was hugely popular in Victorian Times," says curator Alice Cliff.

"But it is surprising to think that it could match the Christmas pantomime for a holiday outing.”

The exhibition has a recommendation age of 14+ due to the inclusion of material of a sensitive nature, including human remains.

Follow #BrainsTour on twitter from 6.30pm tonight (December 19) to discover the personal exhibition highlights of curators Marius Kwint and Alice Cliff.

  • Brains: The Mind As Matter runs until January 5 2014.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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