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Asa Ames
Phrenological Head

This hauntingly beautiful sculpture conjures multiple associations. Although it refers to discredited pseudo-scientific ideas, the multi-colored neurological “map” posited here provides an evocative metaphor for the complexity of an individual’s character.

 

Popular in the early-mid 19th century, phrenology sought to locate the various abilities and characteristics of an individual within different areas of the brain, claiming that personality could be “read” through an assessment of the shape of one’s skull. The practice of phrenology is freighted with a profoundly troubling history, used as a tool to justify racism, sexism, classism, and social Darwinism.

 

For some, however, earlier in its history, phrenology suggested possibilities for a greater understanding of the human mind and its multiple facets. Phrenology may have offered a personal source of hope for the maker of this head. Sculptor Asa Ames likely carved this work around 1850, when he was living under the care of Dr. Harvey Marvin, a practitioner of alternative medicines. The work was made just a year before the artist’s death, probably from tuberculosis. Although any hopes Ames had in phrenology were misguided at best, his sculpture speaks to the optimism about new systems of treatment during a time when many diseases were without a cure.