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Dissected Skulls

Soon to be on view as part of the Fierce Friends exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art, these unusual specimens hold a prominent place in the history of Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s permanent collections.






In 1859, Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species sent shockwaves rippling through the
scientific community and piqued people’s interest in the natural world like never before. The world’s museums took notice, and the late 19th century became high season for collection building. Andrew Carnegie’s young Pittsburgh museum was no exception. In 1897, a committee of men from Carnegie Museum of Natural History was given a budget of $12,000 (a princely sum at the time) to acquire specimens and artifacts for display for the curious Pittsburgh public. Among the items accessioned into the museum’s collection that year were 16 dissected skulls.

“ It was the peak of industrialization, and yet people had a tremendous curiousity about the natural world,” says Suzanne McLaren, collection manager for the Section of Mammals at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “Carnegie Museum of Natural History, like many other young museums at the time, was focusing on building its collections by purchasing, borrowing, or collecting local as well as rare or exotic plants, animals, fossils, and man-made objects and artifacts from all over the world, many of which would be seen by the general public for the very first time.”

The dissected skulls are from various domestic animals including a horse, sheep, rabbit, dog, and cat, as well as more exotic mammals such as an ape and a dolphin. The set also includes a human skull. Each is an actual skull that was dissected at every suture point and then wired together and mounted so viewers could see how the individual pieces fit together.

The entire collection of skulls was purchased from Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, a taxidermy firm run by Henry Augustus Ward, a famous naturalist from Rochester, New York. One of the largest and most successful taxidermists at the time, Ward’s offered a wide range of products to museums and universities, including plaster casts of fossils and skeletons; the famous Blaschkas (glass models of invertebrates and plants made by the Czech artisans Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka); relief maps; prepared microscopic slides; and anatomical models. Interestingly, Ward’s is still in business today, and its entire product catalog is available online at

For decades, the dissected skulls were prominently displayed side-by-side so visitors could compare the different species and easily see how they are related in terms of bone structure. Although the skulls were moved behind the scenes to the Section of Mammals in 2002 to make room for new exhibits, eight of the original 16 will be on view in the exhibition Fierce Friends: Artists and Animals, 1750 to 1900 at Carnegie Museum of Art as examples of models that may have been used by 19th-century artists.

“ Prior to the major medical advances of the 20th century, the human body, as well as the anatomy of animals in general, were very much a mystery, which made the museum’s collection of skulls and other limbs very popular,” says McLaren. “They were—and still are—widely used by art students learning to draw living figures as well as by college students taking comparative anatomy classes.”

This year, visit the Neapolitan Presepio in its new location in the Hall of Sculpture at Carnegie Museum of Art. It will be on view through January 8. Guided tours of the Presepio will be offered Tuesdays through Sundays, November 25 through December 31, from 12:30-1 p.m.

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