The making of life casts to capture the physiognomy and shape of skulls arose in response to the late 18th century science of phrenology. Plaster casts predated photography and provided a way for researchers to bring back three-dimensional reproductions of living subjects "without disguise and without art as required by the needs of anthropology".
The collection comprises historical pieces and was, for the most part, constituted during the development of phrenology in 19th century France. The collection grew thanks to its founder, the neurologist Franz-Joseph Gall (1758-1828), who put together a first series of casts and skulls, and to his student, Pierre-Marie Alexandre Dumoutier (1797-1871). Dumoutier embarked for an expedition with Dumont d’Urville and extended the study of phrenology to the people of distant societies, bringing back numerous examples. Over time, the collection was added to through exchanges and donations, providing an overview of human diversity during the first half of the 19th century. Paul Broca (1824-1880) founder of the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris and a critic of phrenology (due to the fact it dealt exclusively with abstract behaviours), would later become the first to actually demonstrate the seat of a physiological function in the brain, that of speech.
Gall hypothesized that human intellectual functions, our character and our instincts, are rooted in precise areas of the brain. Depending on the size of the vice or virtue areas in the architecture of the brain, phrenology (originally called cranioscopy) claimed to determine a subject’s character by the bumps or depressions on his or her skull. Soon, however, MNHN Anthropologists pointed out that the doctrine, while highly popular, had no objective basis. Gall had taken care to gather subjects with distinct talents (artistic, professional, political, etc.) or pronounced criminal instincts or mental illness. Several hundred white plaster busts illustrated his work, and he himself requested that his own skull join the collection when he died. The polychromatic, ethnographic busts represent a full range of human diversity.
The collection also includes the first facial reconstructions of prehistoric humans (Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal). Lastly, the busts sculpted by the famous Charles Cordier (1827-1905) capture the striking expressions of the models who posed for them, setting them apart from the surrounding casts.
The cast busts now bear witness to the history of science. Historians with an interest in the philosophy of science or the biography of the individuals also consult the collection.