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Death Masks

Death Masks - - Old Melbourne Gaol

These Death Masks are of prisoners who were executed in Old Melbourne Gaol. In the 1800’s, the pioneers of Criminology believed that there were physical clues in the brain and skull that could help explain and assist in the understanding of criminal behaviour. A death mask is an image, typically in wax or plaster cast made of a person’s face following death, often by taking a cast or impression directly from the corpse.

Proponents of phrenology used death masks and skulls to study criminal characteristics and dispositions. The brains, skulls and death masks of hundreds of criminals were examined after death. The word Phrenology is derived from Ancient Greek words meaning “mind” and “knowledge”. It is a pseudomedicine primarily focused on the measurements of the human skull and is now regarded as an obsolete amalgamation of primitive neuroanatomy with moral philosophy. Phrenology was influential in 19th-century psychiatry and assumed that character, thoughts, and emotions are located in specific parts of the brain.

Today, criminology and psychiatry assess criminal behavious in terms of upbringing, social background and the mental health of an individual, not by the phyical caracteristics of the head and skull.


Essential Facts:

  • Title:                Death Masks
  • Year:                1880s
  • Medium:         Caster Plaster
  • Dimensions:   Approx 28.0 x 22 x 19 cm
  • Museum:        Old Melbourne Gaol


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Photo Credits: 1) By Joyofmuseums (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons