December 11, 2013 / 8:50 PM / 4 years ago

Gruesome gift that keeps on giving: $200 to sponsor museum skulls

The Hyrtl Skull Collection is photographed in the Mutter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania June 11, 2009 in this handout image released to Reuters on December 11, 2013.George Widman

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A Philadelphia museum has the perfect holiday gift idea for the person who has everything, including a love of science and a dark sense of humor.

A $200 donation buys the preservation of one of 139 skulls dating back to the 19th century in a collection at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Subtle vibrations from footsteps of museum patrons have caused the skulls, which have been on continuous display for more than 100 years, to lose or crack their teeth, said curator Anna Dhody.

"They need help," she said. "They need saving."

Money raised through the Save Our Skulls campaign will be used to build better mounts.

The skulls were amassed by 19th-century Viennese scientist Josef Hyrtl to debunk the study of phrenology, the belief that the shape of a skull determines a person's moral caliber and that different races are actually different species.

"By collecting predominantly Caucasian skulls, he showed the vast degree of variation," Dhody said.

In doing so, she said, he was able to prove that sweeping statements based on skull shape were not accurate. "For that he was forced into early retirement."

Hyrtl's skulls were collected by means that today would be considered unethical, including employing body snatchers who stole them from graves, according to historical documents.

They came from a wide geographic area, including Egypt, the Balkans, Germany and what is now Italy. He sold them to the museum in 1874.

Donors can choose a specific skull to sponsor from a list on the museum's website. Still available is the one from Stef Milanovic, a 24-year-old who died while imprisoned in a fortress.

In exchange, donors or their loved ones receive a photograph of the sponsored skull, a plaque, and their name shown next to the display for 12 months.

The museum, initially designed for medical students, is now open to the general public. Visitors can see an extensive collection of 19th-century medical oddities, including a massive human colon.

Besides its historical significance, the Hyrtl collection has contemporary uses. Scans of the skulls appear in research databases used for medical purposes, identify human remains and aid in designing bicycle helmets, Dhody said.

Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Lisa Von Ahn

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