The Hyrtl Exhibit, currently on display at the Mütter Museum, is a collection of 138 human skulls originating largely from Central and Eastern Europe, and dating back to the later half of the 19th century. What distinguishes this particular assemblage of bone from any other dusty, museum-appropriated pile? Written on the forehead of each skull is a short list of facts about the person it belonged to: names, birth dates, causes of death, and basic characteristics. Some examples:
*Girolamo Zini, age 20, Rope-walker. Died of atlanto-axial dislocation (broken neck).
* Gianbattista Tozzi, age 24. Policeman, Died of stab wound in Florence.
* Julius Farkas, age 28. Protestant, soldier. Suicide by gunshot wound of the heart, because of weariness of life.
* Geza Uirmeny, 80; Reformist, herdsman. At age 70 attempted suicide by cutting his throat. Wound not fatal. Lived until 80 without melancholy.
Finding herself inspired by the exhibit, visual artist Jeanne Kelly launched an ambitious Kickstarter project aimed at recreating the lives and stories behind each skull. To begin, she used a combination of computer graphics, high-tech scans, and digital imaging to visually reconstruct each person as she imagined they would have existed in real life:
The two dimensional reconstructions stand alone as works in their own right, becoming another form of artifact. As well as expanding our understanding of the sources they grew from, this deeper understanding allows us to see these artifacts as more than objects. We begin to see them people, as our fellow human beings.
These images will be accompanied by a series of miniature, three dimensional sculptures, crafted using the process of stereolithography.
But Jeanne’s imaginative investigation and recreation of the Hyrtl skulls doesn’t stop with their physical reconstruction:
My concept evolved over the months to include a fictional narrative that intertwines the true identities of the eight individuals I’m reconstructing. In this fiction, each of the characters are connected to at least two other characters. The narrative will be told visually with small dioramas. Each diorama will illustrate a connection between the individuals, as well as illustrate the facts we know from the writing on the skulls.
When she’s completed the dioramas, she will divide them by subject and scene, and arrange them on a circular platform for display. Each diorama will be placed inside a closed box with an attached view finder, and illumination provided by a set of small, interior lights. This platform will then be manually rotated by the viewer using a basic gear and crank mechanism.
The sheer breadth of Jeanne’s project is awe inspiring, let alone the fact that the entire idea was seeded from a single, unsuspecting trip to a local museum. Speaks volumes for the value of public art in furthering our collective, creative dialogue, and I’m excited to see what comes of such a wildly imaginative undertaking.