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Hat mould “conformateur”

Traditionally, milleners who wanted to measure a customer’s head used a conformateur, a type of hat mould. This particular specimen was also used to measure the skulls of people who suffered from psychiatric disorders. This method stems from phrenology, a theory dating back to the early 19th century, which was based on the belief that certain mental disorders were reflected in the shape of the skull. Phrenology, however, has been demonstrated to be a pseudoscience, and not based in reality. This hat mould is part of psychologist Jules Van Biervliet’s collection (1859-1945). We are unsure whether he actually used the mould, but we do know he did not support phrenology.
  • Maker: Allié Maillard
  • Date: 2nd half of the 19th century
  • Location: Paris, France
  • Collection: History of Medicine
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Psychologists and neuroscientists are still searching for a link between the activity in certain areas of the brain and carrying out specific tasks.

Who was Jules Van Biervliet?

Jules Van Biervliet (1859-1945) was the first professor of psychology at Ghent University. In 1891, he founded the Laboratory for Experimental Psychology in Ghent, in an age when psychology was separating off from philosophy and becoming more ‘scientific’. This ‘conformateur’ or ‘skull-measuring cap’ belonged to his collection of scientific instruments.

What is a craniometer?

Een craniometer is een toestel dat de schedelvorm en de onregelmatigheden in het schedeloppervlak van een mens opmeet. Craniometers kunnen variëren van simpele toestellen die de basis hoofddiameter meten tot meer ingewikkelde instrumenten die in staat zijn om de volledige schedel in kaart te brengen. Deze hoed behoort tot de laatste categorie.

How does this craniometer work?

This cap works with a pin system. The test subject puts the cap on their head. Then all the small individual rods are pushed as close to the skull as possible. There is a sharp pin on the end of each rod. When the cap fits correctly, the ‘cover’, with a layer of cork on the underside, is lowered. The pins press into the cork and leave a print behind of the shape of the test subject’s skull and the irregularities in the skull surface.

Why measure skulls?

Skull measurements were mainly used at the turn of the 20th century in anthropological and ethnological research, among other things, to establish racial characteristics. However, interest in the subject dates back to before that time, reaching a climax at the beginning of the 19th century with the development of phrenology by Frans Joseph Gall. This doctrine claims that intelligence, character and behaviour are determined by the development of the brain, and that this can be deduced from the shape of the skull.

How do we ‘measure’ the brain today?

Psychologists and neuroscientists are still searching for a link between the activity in certain areas of the brain and carrying out specific tasks (perception, motor functions, cognition). Phrenology has a historical place in this search, because research has shown that there is no correlation between the shape and size of the skull and the development of the brain.

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