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

Introduction

A set of 60 small plaster busts, each with a different form – shape, size and features – has long been one of the treasures of the Science Museum’s The Science and Art of Medicine gallery (see Figure 1). In the 19th century they were referred to as ‘Bally’s phrenological specimens’, a tool used by William Bally in his practice of phrenology. Said to be made in Manchester in 1831, the set was collected by the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in 1951, and put on display at the Science Museum in the late 1970s. Then, when the set was requested for loan to the Wellcome Collection exhibition Brains: The Mind as Matter at the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester, it seemed exciting to think that it was coming home after almost 200 years away. But research has uncovered that this neat story of origin and return is very possibly untrue. The signs were there – the object has always been catalogued as ‘possibly Manchester or Dublin’. When initial research revealed that the maker, William Bally, was in Manchester during the 1830s, the ‘coming home’ story gained momentum.

Figure 1

60 miniature phrenology busts displayed in wooden case

Bally’s miniature phrenological specimens , England, 1831

Using close inspection of the object, and a re-examination of the primary literature surrounding William Bally and his phrenological practice, it has been possible to determine that the set was in fact made in 1832, and that Bally’s career as a phrenologist probably began with this set of miniature busts. Historian Roger Cooter has cited the busts in his comprehensive Phrenology in the British Isles (Cooter, 1989, p 313), but this is the first time that the context of their production has been considered, both in terms of the importance to Bally’s career as a phrenologist, and the importance of material culture to the practice of phrenology in the 19th century. Nevertheless, whether the set of miniature busts was made in Manchester or Dublin remains a matter of speculation.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140102/007