Mind Shift

Confronting a colonial collection

An illustrated Anatomical Cabinet

The University's Anatomical Museum holds one of the largest and most historically significant collections relating to phrenology in the world. Now discredited, phrenology was a science of measurement which promoted a colonial agenda, situating Edinburgh as a centre for scientific racism in the 19th century.

This exhibition, of life and death masks, models, artworks and human remains, spotlights contemporary historical, scientific and artistic research into this colonial collection.

What is Phrenology?

Derived from the Greek words φρήν and λόγος meaning “mind” and “knowledge”, phrenology involved the study of bumps and hollows of the skull, believing they indicated a person's character, personality, or intelligence. The differently-coloured regions on this model are numbered to correspond to areas of the brain that were thought to have certain attributes relating to instinct, sentiment, perception and reflection.

Press ‘Full Information’ below for the qualities that phrenologists associated with each region.

The work of Edinburgh phrenologists excluded Black people from narratives of civilization and progress. Not everyone agreed with phrenology and these racist theories did not go unchallenged by Black scholars, both in Edinburgh and beyond.

The Abolitionist

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland, USA, but went on to become a famous public speaker, philosopher, intellectual and self-liberated freedom fighter. A frequent visitor to Edinburgh between 1845 and 1847, he campaigned across Britian and Ireland against slavery for freedom and social justice.

Douglass was acquainted with phrenology in Edinburgh, visiting George Combe alongside abolitionists George Thompson and William Lloyd Garrison and reading Combe’s Constitution of Man. In 1854, Frederick Douglass hit out at phrenology, arguing that in their comparisons phrenologists “invariably present the highest type of the European, and the lowest type of the negro.” Once again linking phrenology directly to slavery, Douglass concluded “by making the enslaved a character fit only for slavery, they excuse themselves for refusing to make the slave a freeman.”

Douglass is also one of the inspirations behind the artist's commission for this exhibition: Tayo Adekunle's Fitting the Character.

Edinburgh's First African Graduate

James ‘Africanus’ Beale Horton was born in Sierra Leone. Following the British War Office’s idea to train Africans in medicine, Horton was among the first Africans to be sent to Britain to study for a medical degree in 1853.

Around a third of Horton’s 1868 work, West African Countries and Peoples, British and Native: and a Vindication of the African Race, is dedicated to the discussion of race, anatomy, and phrenology. In his book he challenges the phrenologist James Hunt by name, whose pamphlet he says contains “tissues of the most deceptive statements, calculated to mislead those who are unacquainted with the African race... his descriptions are borrowed from the writings of men who are particularly prejudiced against that race; his absurd pro-slavery views, as contained in his pamphlet, would have perhaps suited a century ago; but all true Africans must dismiss them with scorn”.

From Pseudoscience to Neuroscience

By the late 1840s, interest in phrenology began to wane due to a growing amount of evidence against it, but further developments in brain science, over the second part of the 19th century, reveal some truth to its claims.

In this video David Price, Professor of Developmental Neurobiology from the Centre for Brain Discovery Sciences at the University, explains what phrenologists got right and importantly, what they got wrong.

Phrenology may have been debunked over 150 years ago, but its foundational theories continued to have impact, even today.

Phrenology deeply influenced the development of modern anthropology, criminology, and evolutionary biology as well as eugenics which further encouraged skull-collecting activities as the British Empire grew. Discover more about the role of skull collecting in the next section.