LOST BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
COLLECTING AND INTERPRETING HUMAN SKULLS AND HAIR IN LATE NINETEENTH-CENTURY LONDON: PASSING FABLES & COMPARATIVE READINGS AT THE WILDGOOSE MEMORIAL LIBRARY. AN ARTIST'S RESPONSE TO THE DCMS GUIDANCE FOR THE CARE OF HUMAN REMAINS IN MUSEUMS (2005)
In 2015 Jane Wildgoose was awarded a PhD from Kingston University London, where she presented her practice-based doctoral research as an artist's response to the 'unique status' ascribed to human remains in the DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums (2005).
The research took as its starting point the DCMS Guidance's acknowledgement that human remains may be perceived both as objects - in scientific, medical and anthropological contexts - and as subjects 'that have a personal, cultural, symbolic, spiritual or religious significance to individuals and, or, groups.' It also responded to the Guidance's acknowledgement that some human remains in museums 'were acquired between 100 and 200 years ago from Indigenous peoples in colonial circumstances, where there was a very uneven divide of power.'
Focusing on the circumstances in which human remains were acquired from Indigenous peoples under British colonial rule, and the legacies of that historical practice concerning their presence in museums today, Jane Wildgoose's doctoral project aimed to contribute to developing new ways of engaging the public with a significant and problematic aspect of the history of collecting, which is little discussed in the narratives that museums present to their visitors.
Taking the form of a Comparative Study, Jane's research focused on the late nineteenth century: when human skulls were collected in great numbers for the purposes of comparative anatomical and physical anthropological research in metropolitan museums (a phenomenon in the history of collecting described by Stephen J. Gould, in The Mismeasure of Man, as 'the heyday of craniology') while, at the same time, the fashion for incorporating the hair of known individuals into mourning jewellery was widespread throughout society in the UK.
The project investigated previously unpublished correspondence from a wide network of suppliers, who sent quantities of human skulls from the colonies to metropolitan museums. It also examined catalogues and gallery guides published by those museums: in which the resulting collections of human skulls were measured, compared, classified and displayed according to hierarchical theories of racial "type."
The associative significance popularly attributed to mourning hairwork in wider society in the UK (revealed in contemporary diaries, literature, and hairworkers' manuals) was examined in parallel for the purposes of comparison.
Combining inter-related historical, archival- and object-based research with subjective and intuitive elements in her practice, Jane developed her findings, concerning the collection and interpretation of human skulls from Indigenous peoples under colonial rule by metropolitan museums, into a new archive of The Wildgoose Memorial Library: which contains transcriptions from letters from suppliers of human skulls in the colonies; editions of museum catalogues in which the skulls were analysed and organised according to craniometrical methods - that is, 'the leading numerical science of biological determinism during the nineteenth century' (Gould) - and gallery guides describing their presentation in racially differentiated hierarchical displays in museums.
She also devised a new piece of hairwork: which commemorates the lives of the individuals whose skulls were historically taken without consent for the purpose of providing data for pernicious theories of (long-since discredited) racial science in metropolitan museums.