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Miniature ivory phrenological bust, Europe, 1850-1914

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The skull of this ivory bust has been marked off into sections and was used for phrenological consultations. Phrenology was a practice based on the belief that character could be read from the bumps and lumps of someone’s skull (and thus the underlying structure of the brain). Although phrenology became popular with large numbers of people in the 1800s, it soon became controversial within medical circles, and was eventually dismissed by the medical profession as quackery.

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Glossary: phrenology

The study of the bumps on the outside of the skull in order to determine a person's character. It was based on the mistaken theory that the skull becomes modified according to the size of different parts of the brain.

Glossary: phrenological head

A representation of a human head, on which the phrenological faculties are illustrated. Phrenologists believed that one could tell personality traits by examining the bumps of the skull. The practice is now regarded as a pseudo-science.