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A Touch of Power: Popular Phrenology in the Tasman World
Popular phrenologists prodded countless heads – mostly living – during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Across the Australian and New Zealand colonies, these often-marginal figures promised customers that by studying skull size and shape they could provide insights into their inner selves – supposedly crucial information for personal advancement. This project combines methods from social, cultural and ethnographic history to trace phrenological influence across the Tasman World between the 1840s and the early twentieth century.
From mechanics’ institutions to street corners, the practice of public head reading played out as an extreme manifestation of colonial concern with imposture and class mobility. And it belonged to everyone. Often studied as a racial science that legitimised the collecting of Indigenous remains, phrenology was also sampled by Indigenous Australian and Māori audiences, clients and showmen, as well as by people of colour. This history of science from below explores how moments of performed scientific chaos functioned as contests for interpersonal power and authority in societies experiencing rapid change.
Alex Roginski is a PhD student in the ANU School of History. Her work spans the fields of the history of science, intercultural history and museum studies. She is the author of The Hanged Man and the Body Thief: Finding Lives in a Museum Mystery (Monash University Publishing, 2015) and a contributor to The Routledge Companion to Indigenous Repatriation: Return, Reconcile, Renew (Forthcoming).