Trapped in the Bone Room

Sequestered in a museum basement amongst pungent human skulls by Bill Clinton’s Secret Service detail, you can’t help but consider the history decaying around you.

David Orr is a visual artist based in California. His work has been shown extensively in the...


The head on the table next to me had begun to reek.

There was a distinct tickle of unpleasantness when I first walked in that morning, but having spent almost four weeks total working in the “Bone Room,” located in the basement of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, I’d grown accustomed to myriad unusual and (usually) subtle scents. The Bone Room is filled with shelves containing specimens of all types—everything from skulls and bones (animal and human) to severed human feet covered with lacquered flesh, to a massive whale penis; I’d noticed many smells entering the atmosphere, becoming distinct, then melting back into the overall mustiness of the room. If ignored, these whiffs tended to go away.

But not this one. This head—at more than two hundred years old, though mainly bone, it still had enough reddish black, well, matter on it that I couldn’t really call it just a “skull”—had steadily grown more potent. I was also going to be in its company for the foreseeable future: former president Bill Clinton was speaking at a fundraiser in a ballroom upstairs. The agreement we’d reached with the Secret Service was for me to stay inside the Bone Room once Clinton arrived until he was out of the building, and we got an all-clear.

I’d been photographing the Mütter’s collection of human skulls for an ongoing project, titled Perfect Vessels, to explore ideas of “perfection,” and to emphasize a skull’s use as a container—both practically and mystically, during and after life. I would photograph one skull facing directly towards me, then mirror a single half, making it perfectly symmetrical. I’d worked with repetition and symmetry extensively in previous projects, and learned that as soon as you repeat a shape, no matter how irregular it is, the pair feels entirely balanced.

The term “vessel” connotes many things: a container; a craft one travels (or once travelled) in; a conduit through which powerful energy manifests itself. An exquisitely shaped form, once utilitarian, now admired both as artifact and art. “Vessel” evoked, for me, all shadings of its meaning. The skull not only holds most of our perceptual apparatus and serves as the craft within which our psyche takes its mortal voyage, it’s also a conduit for intense energy, and ends as a highly sculptural relic.

Many of the skulls in the room had had the craniums cut, furthering the resemblance to containers with lids. My research revealed this association to be strikingly literal: skulls have been used as actual bowls and cups for a very, very long time (the oldest carbon-dated sample is 14,700 years old, but most anthropologists believe the practice is as old as man). Lord Byron drank from one (and, yes, wrote a poem about it: Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed From a Skull, 1808). There are several linguistic links, as well: “Noggin,” for instance, originally meant “cup,” and only more recently shifted to mean “head.” German kopf (head) corresponds to English cup (Anglo-Saxon cuppe), both being derived from Latin cuppa (cup). Another Latin word, testa, refers to a pottery vessel or sherd, as well as to the brain-pan and head. Sanskrit words for “Skull,” “bowl” and “cup” are identical, and Tibetans still drink from ornate skull cups (kapalas), using the practice to remind them of life’s impermanence.

I am not particularly squeamish about being around skulls. I’d also had some time to acclimate: This was actually my second round of photographing skulls from the Josef Hyrtl and Mütter collections, and I was by this point up to well over one hundred photographed. Every morning, one of two carts (named either Akbar or Jeff) would be waiting for me in the Bone Room, neatly loaded with between nine and eighteen skulls I’d requested from the museum’s display cases. Before beginning that day’s shooting, I would reorder the skulls (by size, shade, surface texture, etc.), for a smooth progression from one skull to the next. Any truly unique specimens, meanwhile, I’d set aside to be photographed last—these I nicknamed ODODs, or “Odd Ducks On Deck.” That day’s ODOD would be my fragrant friend to the side, which had been awaiting its close-up all morning; much darker than the others, with much additional material on it, there was never a question that it was going to be last.

Although skulls have similar shapes and common parts, no two are identical, just like faces or sets of fingerprints. First, there’s size: The majority of the skulls in the Bone Room, which cover a wide range of shapes and sizes, come from the Josef Hyrtl collection (acquired by the Mütter in 1874), assembled with the purpose of debunking phrenology. In order to dispute claims that skull size and shape corresponded directly to intelligence, Hyrtl’s collection originally included skulls associated with undisputed genius (like a small one believed to have been that of Mozart, which now resides in the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria), which one could then compare and contrast with a much larger cranium belonging to a “cretin” who’d suffered from a cranium-swelling congenital thyroid deficiency, resulting in severe mental damage.

Differing methods of burial, storage, retrieval, and other factors all have an impact on each skull’s condition and state as well, leading to significant variations in condition and color; each specimen in this particular collection was gathered differently, handled differently, and stored differently. Many were collected at a time when grave-robbing was the only way to acquire specimens, while others were donated from physicians’ private collections, making for a wide variety of shapes and finishes, ranging from skulls that look not unlike ivory to those that look like ancient ceramics, and a few that most closely resemble petrified wood.

Finally, many of the skulls at the Mütter are used to illustrate the effects of extreme and disfiguring maladies, including syphilitic necrosis, elephantiasis, melted bone, shattered bone, decayed bone, not to mention good old-fashioned bullet wounds and other grievous injuries. This great assortment is what’s made the Mütter Museum known worldwide, and why artists as diverse as Joel-Peter Witkin, Taryn Simon, and the Quay Brothers have all worked there. Some of these skulls and specimens are really different. I have long been fascinated by the range of textures and shapes of such a commonplace item (we all have one), but some of the shapes here are stunning. For my purposes, then, mirroring skulls from the Mütter collection might seem initially counterintuitive, but it’s by repeating these aberrations or “mistakes” that I come a step closer to something perfect.

As human beings, we are hard-wired to find symmetry pleasing, being essentially symmetrical ourselves. As Milan Kundera put it: “Beauty means that a particular specimen closely resembles the original prototype.” Findings published in scientific studies, such as Symmetry and Human Facial Attractiveness, indicate that the more symmetrical a person’s face is the more they will be regarded as trustworthy, the more they will earn over a lifetime, and the more likely they are to be chosen as a partner during sexual selection. From a biological and mechanical perspective, symmetry has emerged and thrived through centuries of evolution, because it works. As a result of this structural and aesthetic power, our predilection for symmetry extends to things we create, as well. The Greek origin of the term, symmetria, means “agreement in dimensions, due proportion, arrangement.” It was a key principle of classic architecture, and still factors in contemporary industrial design, including vessels. Most vases, urns, chalices, and boats are symmetrical objects.

To make the mirroring work, the camera is set at each skull’s eye level. Every time I look through the viewfinder, hundreds of years of history is staring back. I actually have access to these histories. Usually, unless it’s a known religious relic, a skull’s provenance is fairly vague. (In many cases, this is deliberate: specimens often have an unsavory history, having come from mass graves created during wars, outbreaks of disease, or genocide.) But the Mütter is a science and pathology museum, and many of the histories are documented. Rather than religious relics, most of these were laborers, criminals, and soldiers, collected from potter’s fields and hospitals. Yet another thing I like about photographing the skulls here: it might help keep an otherwise obscure person’s name alive.

Often, this information was inked directly onto each skull. When displayed among others in cabinets, each skull rests securely on its own custom-designed oak and PVC mount, with a display card on the front listing information about each skull, often taken from the skull itself (the person’s name, age, country of origin, occupation, cause of death, medical notes). Many of these cards tell you an entire story within their terse, two-sentence descriptions. Some are darkly comic:

Girolamo Zini | Tightrope walker | Died of axiolocation (broken neck)

Another favorite: (and a reminder that we, the living, can learn a lot from them, the dead):

Geza Uirmeny, 80 | Attempted suicide at 70 | Attempt failed due to ossified larynx. Lived until 80 without further melancholy.

(This is to say nothing of “Scopzi” Sect member Andrejew Sokoloff, who, it is said, died of “self-inflicted removal of testicles.”)

The description for the particularly ripe specimen next to me, however, simply read:

Age, unknown. Sex, unknown. Tombs of the Kings, Sakkareth (Egypt) unknown.

Not much information to go on, not much of a story, and I hadn’t actually seen this skull before this morning, but I couldn’t pass up a specimen that came from Egypt’s “Tombs of the Kings.”

I was having trouble even reading off the computer screen; the air in the room had gotten so tangy that my eyes are beginning to water. I will later learn that the name for the phenomenon I was experiencing is “off-gassing” (about as pleasant as it sounds). I decided to break my routine and get this ODOD on the stage, in the can, and out the door as soon as possible. I moved it to the staging area; most skulls are quite light (think a bicycle helmet), but this one, besides having a lot of the aforementioned matter on it, was noticeably heavier, indicating there was still some matter in it. I arranged it in front of the camera, and adjusted the tripod so the lens was at the skull’s eye-level. There was an even more powerful miasma. My eyes filled again so quickly that it was actually difficult to focus the old-school Hasselblad. I looked down into the viewfinder to see the object in front of me; if a tear dropped into the focusing screen, everything would have to stop while I removed the screen, then cleaned and dried it thoroughly. I needed to work quickly if I was going to get this shot.

There was a soft knock on the door: “David? He’s here now. So remember: don’t come out until they tell us.”


It had been such a weird morning that I’d actually forgotten: Bill Clinton was upstairs, and I’d have to stay in here until his event had completed. This, I knew, may take a while. And now I had no focusing screen. Thankfully, ODOD’s focus had already been set.

I finished shooting “Tomb of the Kings” and made an executive decision. I opened the door a crack, confirmed no one was in the hallway, and furtively wheeled Akbar with the offending ODOD just outside the Bone Room, then slipped back inside. (If any government agents did observe this, I can only wonder what they whispered into their sleeves.) It still smelled in there, but thankfully the intensity left with the specimen, and I was able to work. While the screen was set aside to dry, I began to review the day’s work, and triple-check the names and backgrounds of the others I’d photographed throughout week. It can be easy to think of these simply as objects—this opened all the stories afresh.

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes developed the twin concepts of studium and punctumStudium denoting the cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph, punctum denoting the wounding detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it—the detail that “pricks” you (the catalyst of this line of thought was a photograph of his deceased mother). In a project like Perfect Vessels,I spend a lot of time thinking about how this idea applies. When working with skulls, there are many immediate cultural connections and associations—skulls are an almost universally understood icon. The aspect that “stings’ you can be contained in the caption, the name and history.

In some cases, the information provided raises more questions than it answers.

Did Gennaro Trompetta, a thirteen-year-old, run away and join a ship’s crew seeking swashbuckling high-seas adventure? Or did his family, desperate for income, force him into service?

Why exactly was nineteen-year-old Francisca Seycora a “famous” prostitute? Number of arrests? Skill? Her beauty? (I can see that her bone structure—a term that has become much more specific for me since this project began—is indeed exquisite.)

What amount of self-loathing and religious fervor would compel Andrejew Sokoloff to castrate himself? A quick Wikipedia search revealed that

[membership] in the Skoptsy sect was not restricted to the peasant class. Nobles, military and naval officers, civil servants, priests and merchants were to be found in its ranks, and its numbers were so great that 515 male and 240 female members were transported to Siberia between 1847 and 1866 without seriously threatening its existence. In 1874 the sect numbered at least 5444, including 1465 women. Of these 703 men and 100 women had partaken in bodily mutilation.

The entry went on to say that the Skoptsy were: “… first noted in the late 18th century … before fading into obscurity by the mid-20th century.” I was stunned. I wouldn’t have thought this persuasion would survive more than a generation.

When at the Mütter, researching these sometimes bizarre histories, and seeing the devastating effects of mercifully bygone maladies, you can’t help but think about the lives that were so dramatically affected. It’s both powerful and heartbreaking to think of someone’s suffering (both from the illness, whether mental or physical, and the attempted cure) leading to states of health we now take for granted. There’s a nobility and grace in giving a life to something larger than yourself, but none of these lives were intended as gifts: people simply wanted what was bedeviling them to be sorted out. It’s a reminder that medicine—even as relatively sophisticated as it has become—has always been a grueling, incremental process. Many must perish in the same way until a common solution is worked out. This is still true today, as we must wait for a generational cycle to determine a potential (pharmaceutical or surgical) treatment’s efficacy.

It’s also remarkable to see how some “primitive” attempts at care remain in use today. We tend to bring up treatments like trephining and leeching as examples of how far medicine has progressed away from superstition and laughably crude solutions; when it comes to using those techniques to release malevolent spirits or keep the four humors in balance, fair enough. But removing a section of skull to ease swelling (craniotomy) is still performed in cases of extreme intracranial pressure. And leeches are still in use today: the anticoagulant hirudinin the leech’s saliva reduces clotting, keeping separated tissue alive—especially helpful when keeping organs and parts viable for reattachment, or during reconstructive and plastic surgery. (Robert Hicks, the Mütter Museum’s director, learned of these remarkable properties firsthand when he accidentally overfed one of his pet leeches, then couldn’t stop the bleeding.)

My consideration of these lives lived, and what they helped secure for us today is something that will strike me, punctum-like, at unexpected intervals. There are times when I get so lost in the work that noting the facts has become part of my daily routine as much as finding Akbar or Jeff loaded afresh each morning. Each day’s work involves the logging of names and events even before any vigilant handling of these fragile one-of-a-kind artifacts. I never want to risk over-confidence. After becoming absorbed in the technical and aesthetic matters of photography and lighting, it is a last reminder as I confirm the information of who each person was, what they did, what they valued, and what they suffered. I’m never far away from connecting the skull to specific facts of a life. And yet, the “object” aspects of these skulls can distance me from the fact that they were once part of someone’s body. Those aromatic remains I had to banish from my workspace were a tangible reminder that I’m working with remnants of an organic form.

Having now quadruple-checked that today’s information was accurate, I replaced the focusing screen, reset the lights, and finished off the batch of skulls. I texted to see if I missed an all-clear and got an almost immediate reply:

Nope. Could be awhile. They warned us that he likes to talk ;-)

Well, I’d had my eye on a few candidates within the Bone Room itself. Most of the skulls on the shelves had little or no information available; no names, just accession numbers written on paper tags looped around a thin section of bone, most often the jaw, if there was one. There were tiny, featherweight fetal skulls, skulls attached to articulated skeletons, skulls mounted to old-fashioned display stands, and parts of skulls that look like pottery sherds. Without names, these could have seemed even more at an archeological remove to me than those I had previously set aside. But thanks to today’s olfactory interlude, I was acutely aware of these having once been part of a human being. I gently set another onto the stage, peered into the viewfinder, into (reassuringly) empty eyes, and wondered: What was the story here?


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