The face of death

Death masks show the subject's facial expression immediately after death. It was important to make death masks quickly, before the features became distorted.

Death masks collection

Australian Museum Archives © Australian Museum

Death masks were used for a number of reasons - as a tool for sculpture or effigy making, or as objects of veneration.

The Australian Museum had a collection of death masks. The collection included the mask of 'Bold' Jack Donohue, better known as 'The Wild Colonial Boy'. In 1897 the masks were given to the Anatomy Museum at Sydney University, but have since disappeared.

In 19th century Australia, plaster casts of criminals were commonly used in the study of phrenology. Phrenologists divided the head into 35 areas called 'faculties'. Bumps or depressions in these areas revealed a person's strengths, weaknesses and motivations. The extremes of society - the exalted and lowly - were of especial interest. By studying the heads of criminals, phrenologists believed they could prove the existence of a criminal type or class.


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