Getting in the Heads of the Hyrtl Skull Collection

Image of the Hyrtl Skull Collection at the Mütter Museum


The following was written by Michaela Peterson, a high school student from Science Leadership Academy.

One of my favorite exhibits at the Mütter Museum is the Hyrtl Skull collection. The collection consists of 139 skulls collected by Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtl. Hyrtl collected these skulls to disprove Phrenology, a “science” that says you can tell a person’s intelligence based on the size and measurements of the skull. This racist practice was used to assert that, because the African skull shape is different from white men’s, they were inherently stupid and meant for slavery. Though there are few skulls from Africa in Hyrtl’s collection, he was able to display the vast difference in size and shape in Caucasian skulls, proved that intelligence had nothing to do with skull shape.

Hyrtl wrote a synopsis of what he knew of each person’s life on their skulls. These synopses might include the person’s name, age, cause of death, occupation, where they were from, and any other relevant information. There are several interesting stories that can be found in the skulls. Two of my favorites are the tight-rope walker who died from a broken neck and Francesca, the famous Venetian prostitute. Every skull is from a different place, a different person, each with their own incredible story.

When you are looking at the skulls, it puts a lot of things in perspective. Even though most of these people never met, never even lived in the same area, all of their stories are being told right next to each other. It’s amazing what can happen to the stories that are our lives after we die. For all we know, we might become someone’s favorite story from a museum or a book. It is also a startling reminder that everything in this museum is real. These skulls and skeletons and wax models have pasts. They have stories about the people who lived with them. And just that thought, that realization allows you to marvel at the complex, and sometimes terrifying, piece of art that is the human body. You are a living, breathing thing that thinks and sees and wonders. And so were they. They have stories. What will yours be?



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