(a note on content)
Some of the stories in the exhibition feature racist, ableist, and/or homophobic medical terms which are offensive. As curators and writers of this exhibition, we have done our best to use these terms responsibly, with a view to appropriately contextualising and exploring these ideas and their history, and encouraging continuing critical thought in the interests of positive social change in the future.
While trying to address these issues squarely, we are also aware that we may ourselves use racist and ableist language naively or in error. As such, we welcome corrections and suggestions for improving the language used here, and encourage you to get in touch with us to help us learn and improve the language of the exhibition if you feel we have done so. The exhibition also features images of pathology specimens which include human organs.
Composite portraits, UCL Science Collections (Galton Collection), 1876-1879.
The Victorian era, obsessed with moral restraint and sexual moderation, led to a fascination for the classification of all that was considered as alien to these strict moral codes. There was a strong interest among Galton’s contemporaries in degeneracy, which was widely perceived as a national threat. It was blamed by commentators of the time for the cause and result of a host of issues, from alcoholism or pollution to working classes revolution (Arata, 1996). These individual afflictions affected the collective life of the nation, which encouraged scientists and sociologists to dedicate themselves to defining who these degenerates were, in order to recognise them and remove them from the rest of society, which they supposedly endangered. Criminals were seen at the time as people who were unable to control themselves, a perfect counterexample of the restraint advocated for the people, and became another sign of a crumbling society, invaded by degeneracy.
Sociologists and scientists held different views on the subject of the origins of crime: where a criminal was a product of the decaying world they lived in in sociology, scientists started to develop the idea that they were born criminal, with inherited traits that could be recognised through physiological features. By making crime a genetic characteristic, it sentenced both the criminal and their family. Galton, drawing on Social Darwinism, aimed to prove that the deviancy of criminality was the characteristic of a weaker human race. He had begun these studies in 1877, after being invited by Her Majesty’s director of prisons to determine whether types of criminality could be linked back to physical features (Fineman, 2012). Galton indeed believed that physical appearance could be classified and used to define a person’s potential for psychological conditions and crime. It is with this theory in mind that he devised the technique of composite portraits, as a visual tool to categorise people into “human types.”
In order to prove the existence of a “weaker type,” Galton wished to use the apparent accuracy, objectivity and scientific repeatability which photography appeared to offer compared to other forms of observation. The idea behind composite portraiture is quite simple: the photographer has to use the same photographic plate for all the exposures, making sure that each portrait is superimposed onto the next one, resulting into a single portrait made up of several individual ones. When working with photographs already produced, Galton set a camera upon the arranged photographs, held together with pins on top of each other, and took turns in exposure in front of the camera to recreate this superimposition (Bernie et al. 2013). The composite portraits could be used to show the similarities between members of the same family or attempt to see the true likeness of a person through different representations, like this composite portrait of Napoleon.
The advantage seen by Galton in photography, like many of his contemporaries, was that this medium was unable to convey falseness: but “while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph” (Hine, 1909). What Hine means by this statement is that the accuracy seemingly depicted by a camera can deceive the spectator if the photograph manipulates this image. Hine was an American photographer at the beginning of the 20th century, who himself shot composite portraits of children during his reportages to denounce the conditions of child labour: however, he never published them, probably understanding the cruciality of presenting unaltered photographs when they were destined for a representation of reality (Fineman, 2012). Galton saw things differently: for him, composite photographs were a way to turn the pictures into facts, into “pictorial statistics” (Galton, 1879) which would reveal the average face of a criminal.
The portraits made by Galton were used as socio-political and pseudo-scientific tool to prove his eugenics theories. Some of his work focused on what he describes “The Jewish type,” showing the place of race and antisemitism in eugenics.
Moreover, Galton was particularly concerned by the fertility of the lower, "deviant” classes, and believed them to be an obstacle to progress and evolution. The goal was thus not only to “obtain pictorial average” (Galton, 1877) of the “criminal class,” but to use these photographs as scientific proof to promote his eugenics agenda.
These specific portraits were made with original images from the Home Office, from plates of criminals accused of murder and manslaughter, and one convicted of larceny (Berni et al. 2013). The criminals cannot be identified, which was Galton’s goal in order to remove each person from his context, and focus solely on physiognomic features.
By manipulating photographs in such a way, any two portraits of people will eventually merge into a singular figure, ending up resembling no one in particular, and even losing human characteristics. Galton’s work resulted in a reification of the other (de Lorenzo, 2015), which encouraged thinking of the lower social classes, the original individual components of the composite photographs, as a lower human class.
This othering of criminals and of the lower class they came from made eugenicists cast them aside from society and labelling them as mentally deficient. As a danger to society, their ‘evils’ had to be stopped, which led some countries to drastic measures such as eugenics sterilization programs. The first one of this sort took place in the state of Indiana (US), where a portion of the population of Jeffersonville’s prison was sterilized in 1907 (Samson, 2013). Several programs followed suit in North America, and show the atrocious consequences of eugenics theories.
While the UCL report states that the object has been used in various exhibitions to talk about the history of science (Science Museum of London, exhibition Who Am I ?, 2013) or photography (The Met, New YorkFaking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, 2012), no museum seems to have addressed eugenics as the main lens through which to view this object. It is fitting that UCL, which had a significant role in the development and legitimisation of eugenics, may be the first institution to present this object within the harmful context it was created for.
By Laura Nebout
Arata, Stephen. 1996. Fictions of loss in the Victorian fin de siècle: Identity and empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Berni, Catherina., Jensen, Anne B., Meade, Vanessa., Petit, Chloe., Romero, Ana R-A., and Xiao, Kaiyin. 2013. GALT378. Internal UCL Report [Unpublished].
De Lorenzo, Catherine. 2015. The composite Enigma of Nadar.The History of Photography 27 (3): 205-221. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/03087298.2003.10441247
Fineman, Mia. 2012. Faking it: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Galton, Francis. 1877. "Anthropometry” [Address to the Department of Anthropology. Section H. Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science: 94-100.
Galton, Francis. 1879. Generic Images. Nineteenth Century 6: 157-169.
Hine, Lewis W. 1909. Social photography: How the camera may help in the social uplift. National Conference on Social Welfare, Official Proceedings of the Annual Meeting : 355-359. Available via https://bcourses.berkeley.edu/courses/1457197/files/70783544/download?verifier=5AnaXUGcUVRujJp7cdEnspYnX6CjkR5qflR6Rg2y.
Samson, Amy. 2013. Criminality. Eugenics Archive. 14 September. Available via: Criminality - Connections - Eugenics Archives
LDUAC-UCL1592ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Ceramic figurine, “Grotesque figure of nude distorted dwarf”, Institute of Archaeology Collections, date of manufacture unknown, collected early 20th Century.
At first glance, the ceramic figurine originating from Egypt during the Hellenistic period seems to hold little relevance to the eugenicist movement....
LDUSC-Noel-34ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Cast 34: Carl Gottlob Irmscher, UCL Science Collections (The Noel Collection of Life and Death Masks), 1840.
Francis Galton was far from the first to propose correlations between the psychology and physicality of a person....