Go back to article: Coming home - Bally’s miniature phrenological specimens

Conclusions – coming home?

Bally’s phrenological collection had long been sold in shares ‘for the public use and benefit’, destined for the proposed free museum of Manchester (anon., 1858c). It had been temporarily deposited at the Mechanics’ Institution on Cooper Street, and then the Free Library on Lower Byrom Street (ibid.). A few remaining busts were left to Bally’s ‘fellow-countryman and modeller’ Benedetti Lanarto (ibid.).

This is where the trail goes cold. By 1860, the committee of the Free Library had deposited Bally’s collection in the Queen’s Park (Art) Museum in Harpurhey, Greater Manchester (Tedder and Thomas, 1880, p 121), and there does not seem to be any other record of it being there. Was the set of 60 phrenological specimens part of that collection, bequeathed to Lanarto or sold in the period after 1832? Bally had at least one set for display at the Great Exhibition in 1851, but the specimens’ renown within the phrenological community could have resulted in a great number being produced. As a set of 61 busts, including the single additional bust marked ‘5’, this set was acquired by the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1951, from a Mrs Spendlove of Finchley, London (anon., 1855). Where they had been for the previous 119 years remains one of the many mysteries of museum collections.

As so often happens with the close inspection of a museum object, more questions have been generated than answered. Inspection revealed the date made to be 1832, which led to numerous questions about where the set had been made. Comparison with other sets showed similarities and differences in production, but offered no conclusions about place of origin. Scrutiny of the form and finish of the busts led to questions about how the busts had been made. Some of Bally’s techniques were evidenced in the objects, while others were elucidated from the primary literature. Finally, a consideration of the significance of these objects to Bally, and to the phrenological community, again supported by the primary literature, led to conclusions about their key role in Bally’s identity as a phrenologist, and the importance of material culture in the 19th-century practice of phrenology. E McClung Fleming’s model for artefact study, first published in 1974 (McClung Fleming, 1982), suggests these steps: factual description, evaluation by comparison with other objects, analysis of the object’s place in its culture, and its current significance. They remain one of the most useful ways of interrogating objects, although sadly in this case they did not confirm the busts’ emotionally engaging ‘coming home’ story.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140102/011