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Burke and Hare, Keats and Voltaire: life (and death) masks in Edinburgh

Written by
Figgy Guyver
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Hidden within the colourful maze that is the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is an oasis of calm. The gallery’s modest library contains reference books of all sorts, as well as numerous miscellaneous oddities - from a locket containing a miniature portrait of the eye of Charlotte Princess of Wales to the life (and death) masks of the famous and infamous.

The phrenological heads in the gallery’s permanent collection make the trek to New Town worthwhile. Back in the 19th century, Edinburgh was the centre for phrenology - the pseudoscientific practice of measuring different parts of a person’s skull in order to discern notable character traits, ethical leanings and even degrees of intelligence. The centre for the practice was found, until it was disbanded in 1870, just down the street from what is now the Portrait Gallery.

Death Masks Edinburgh

Remnants, or remains, of the peculiar practice are displayed in the glass cabinets that line the walls of the library. The heads of the infamous murderers Burke and Hare are shown alongside the authors Keats and Voltaire. Framed, as the display is, in the context of phrenology, you might find yourself temporarily buying into the ‘scientific’ theories - studying the heads as if to detect from physical appearance why two of the men were murderers, two were literary geniuses. The disturbingly perfunctory tags of ‘insane’ man, ‘female idiot’ and a woman of ‘extreme cunning’ bring you back to the 21st century however; this practice demonstrated a very Victorian urge to define, demarcate and categorise. 

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery isn’t just oil paintings and sculptural busts. Tucked away in the peaceful library, in some unassuming cabinets, are leftovers of a bizarre pseudoscientific practice. Visit some of Scotland’s scientific history, which is unusually located in one of the city’s leading art galleries. 

See Time Out's guide to Edinburgh's best museums.

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