Every Human Skull Is a Beautiful Snowflake

A new exhibit at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia explores the beauty and individuality of human skulls.

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Aug 24 2016, 3:09pm

Skulls featured in the "Perfect Vessels" exhibit. Images courtesy of David Orr

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You can tell a lot about people by looking at their skulls—their age, sex, race, and health can all be ascertained by examining the 22 bones that cradle the brain. No two skulls are identical. Like faces and personalities, each one is unique, preserving the essence of someone even after he or she has died.

David Orr, a photographer based in Los Angeles, sees these individual differences in skulls as art. For his latest exhibit, currently on view at Philadelphia's Mütter Museum, he photographed 22 skulls from the museum's Hyrtl collection—more than 100 skulls collected by Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtl, who used them to counter claims that you could determine someone's intelligence by his or her cranial features. Orr's exhibit pairs the original skulls—some of them disfigured or marred by disease—with black-and-white photographs that have been vertically halved and combined with their mirror image. The end result explores our cultural ideal of perfect symmetry, in life and in death.

I spoke to Orr about his exhibit and what we can learn about the living by looking at the skulls of the dead.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

"Perfect Vessels" on exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

VICE: The exhibit is called Perfect Vessels. What does that mean?
David Orr: The significance of "perfect" as a modifier is that each of these skulls is mirrored. I photographed them facing the camera, and I took one half and I mirrored it. I've often worked with symmetry and repeating forms, and I was always fascinated by the way that it resolves them. No matter how odd a shape is, if you repeat it, it becomes considered. But it also leads to something more concrete as well, which is that people consider faces that are more symmetrical to be more attractive. There is a study about this called "Symmetry and Human Facial Attractiveness." That love of symmetry [also] extends to objects.

In terms of the "vessel" part of the title, a vessel can be a container. It can be traveling. It can be a utilitarian object that was once functional and might now be considered art. And it can be a conduit for powerful energy. I think of skulls as all those things. Obviously, it's a jar for our brain—it's a literal container. It's also the craft that we take our mortal voyage in, in that it's where we construct our model of reality.

Why the Hyrtl skulls?
There are a couple reasons. One is that they knew the provenance. In most cases, you don't know where a skull came from—or you may know generally where it came from, but you have no idea who the person was. You have no idea their history, you have no idea the qualities of the life that it was related to. [With the Hyrtl skulls], there was a history for each. He was trying to debunk phrenology—the notion that the size of the cranium determines how intelligent you are. Well, no, it doesn't. So he would show a skull of someone with encephalitis and say, "This person is functionally an idiot." Or he would show the skull of Mozart, which is actually quite small, and everybody pretty much universally acknowledges him as a genius.

The other thing is because it's a pathology museum, the Mütter has a lot of extremely misshapen specimens. That combination for me was irresistible because I feel that the stories behind each image actually add another layer of meaning to it. And also, the more distress, the more variations in shape, the more of a range of looks you're going to get. That's true of any skull. No two skulls look alike—it's just like faces.

The skull of Francisca Seycora, a famous Viennese prostitute. Photo courtesy of the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Do you ever wonder what living people's skulls must look like? Or the reverse, do you try and imagine what these people looked like when they were alive?
Yeah, it got to the point where I was visualizing that all the time. There's a conservator there who is restoring them, and she said, "Have you started to see people's skulls instead of people's faces yet?" It was actually kind of reassuring. I don't mean I could extrapolate what someone's face looked like by seeing a skull. But [we had the skull of] Francisca Seycora, "famous Viennese prostitute," and you can see by the shape of her bones and where her cheekbones are, her forehead, things like that... She probably looked a little bit like Angelina Jolie. She had very fine-boned features. Things like "good bone structure" no longer become abstractions. You see how they actually play out.

There are more than 100 skulls in the Hyrtl collection. How did you pick your 22 favorites?
It was hard. There were some that stood out almost immediately as images that just had a power to them. But you couldn't have every one be a very extreme shape. That would become a repetition of its own, and you wouldn't have the power of a range of shapes and sizes and textures. I wanted to have some that were wonderful and abstract. There's a really great David Bailey quote—"the skull is nature's sculpture"—and I absolutely agree.

The skull of Girolamo Zini. Photo courtesy of the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Did this project change how you think of your skull and maybe what happens to it when you're dead?
Yes, on a few different levels. Obviously I'm thinking of skulls as objects, as well as memento mori. I wonder where [mine] will end up. I wonder if I should make plans for that. Because you think, is it just going to be pulverized, burned up, or smashed? Could it become something that someone could make use of?

There's a very interesting story: Del Close was a famous acting teacher in Chicago. He taught Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd. He's the guy behind the guy in comedic acting. Because he was theater guy and because he knew that he was going to die, he wanted to donate his skull to the Goodman Theatre so that they could use it during productions of Hamlet. So he put it in his will. The person who was supposed to execute it totally botched it up. There's a great New Yorker piece called "Skulduggery" about this. They have a skull, but it's totally not his. I've photographed it, in fact. The jaw doesn't even match the head. It's a real skull, but the top and the bottom literally don't match. It has teeth, and by the time he died, he didn't. I think of the Del Close story as a cautionary tale that proves you need to be extremely specific both in your instructions, and who you designate as the person who will oversee the process. And even then, you cannot be assured that your wishes will be followed.

That's interesting. By comparison, in Hyrtl's collection, we have skulls of everyday people who would otherwise be forgotten to the world, catalogued and exhibited for the world to see.
It's just a classic memento mori. All these skulls you look at—every object—was once a life. That's a powerful feeling. I was all alone in a room in the basement of the Mütter Museum, I was photographing these things, and you're looking at history, and it's looking back at you. You could think of it as a library of lives.

It's kind of interesting to me that these were not famous people. A lot of these were from potter's fields and criminals, or soldiers that had either succumbed to disease or were killed for desertion. That's how [Hyrtl] got a hold of them back in the day. So it's kind of interesting to me that now, someone will know the name "Milan Joanovits." Whereas in the past, the way he lived his life and the way he ended up and what happened to him would normally not have led to people knowing his name.

Perfect Vessels runs through January 5, 2017, at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

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