OUR TREASURES

Many Victorians believed the key to finding the ideal spouse, and reforming the criminal mind, lay in the shape of their skulls which today may seem more than a little ridiculous.

Yet 150 years ago, the world was in the grips of a phrenology craze, and the "science" of phrenology, which declared that the best way to read an individual's character was through the shape of their skull, was making major waves. Prison colonies were being built on phrenological principles and none other than Queen Victoria herself was asking phrenologists to read her children's heads.

The explanation on the back of the phrenological bust in Whangārei Museum's archives. Photo/Supplied
The explanation on the back of the phrenological bust in Whangārei Museum's archives. Photo/Supplied

Pioneered by anatomist Franz Joseph Gall in 1796, this discipline involved the study of the correlation between the skull's confirmation and the associated mental aptitudes and characteristics of the mind. He believed the surface of the skull could be read to determine psychological aptitudes and tendencies, reflecting the characteristics of a person and their natural strengths and weaknesses.

Gall identified 26 regions of the brain that corresponded to various human behaviours such as imagination, love, self-esteem, individuality and hope. The configuration of the cranium was mapped, as delineated on Victorian phrenology busts, one of which is held in the Whangārei Museum's collection.

Advertisement

Phrenologists would read their patients' heads by running their fingertips and palms over the skull feeling for enlargements or indentations, measuring the irregularities, resulting in the production of "bump mappings" or printed phrenological charts for individuals, revealing their assessment of the patient's intellectual and moral dispositions.

A phrenological head chart. These heads have become a symbol of a discipline used over a century ago by those seeking answers to questions we are still asking today. Photo/Supplied
A phrenological head chart. These heads have become a symbol of a discipline used over a century ago by those seeking answers to questions we are still asking today. Photo/Supplied

Phrenology's popularity increased when the less scientifically pretentious and more entrepreneurial American Fowler brothers toured Britain during the 1870s. Audiences were soon flocking to their lectures on the "science of the skull". Many prominent public figures also actively promoted this pseudoscience boosting popularisation to wider cultural forums from the highest social elites, to the notorious "professors" of phrenology, profiting from "head readings" and the mass audiences of the 20th century.

Like mesmerism, phrenology was a slightly disreputable science despite becoming a Victorian phenomenon. Celebrities such as Thomas Guthrie Carr, phrenologist, mesmerist and surgeon, travelled extensively to towns throughout New Zealand and Australia between 1865 and 1886 lecturing on the merits of phrenology.

The bust. Phrenology was regarded as a means to study inmates of jails and lunatic asylums for what constituted a criminal mind, in the hope of conquering many social ills. Photo/Supplied
The bust. Phrenology was regarded as a means to study inmates of jails and lunatic asylums for what constituted a criminal mind, in the hope of conquering many social ills. Photo/Supplied

He was a consummate archetypal Victorian showman who was also classed as an unscrupulous self-promoter and charlatan. Operators like Carr, had infamous reputations as shady entertainers, not to be believed, yet the public were not deterred and lectures continued unabated.

Whangārei held its own staged addresses by the likes of Professor Lio Medo in 1888, an eminent American phrenologist and Madame Vernon, a visiting consultant in phrenology, physiognomy and clairvoyance who in 1906 was offering services from Langham House in Walton St.

Historic phrenological busts like this example dated 1891-1902, which was once an exhibit forming part of Whangārei's first museum housed in an upstairs room of the Municipal Building in Bank St, will almost invariably bear the name "L. N. Fowler".

A close-up of the head of the bust in the Whangārei Museum archives. Photo/Supplied
A close-up of the head of the bust in the Whangārei Museum archives. Photo/Supplied

Their phrenology movement was largely responsible for the anthropometric (head reading) craze of the latter 19th century. The peaked interest in phrenology led to the manufacture by Lorenzo Niles Fowler of these ubiquitous illustrated ceramic busts which he sold with accompanying literature from his Institute in Ludgate Circus, London, where this bust originates.

Phrenology was regarded as a means to study inmates of jails and lunatic asylums for what constituted a criminal mind, in the hope of conquering many social ills. It was also used to aid marriage proposals in a Victorian male-dominated society but although phrenology was a scientific theory for several years, by the early 20th century "head reading" was on the decline.

Fowler gained considerable fame with his phrenological busts which are more than just fascinating pieces of social history. They show a side of our colonial past not often explored and unearth practices which today have long been forgotten. These heads have become a symbol of a discipline used over a century ago by those seeking answers to questions we are still asking today.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North.