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Fine Art from forensic reconstructions of the Mutter Museum's Hyrtl Collection: Only the beginning in bringing their stories to life.

The idea for this project developed from a trip to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. If you have never been, I highly recommend it. You will never feel more human then in the company of this museum's collection.

During my visit I discovered the Hyrtl exhibit. A collection of one hundred and thirty-eight human skulls on display in the main gallery. All of the people in the collection lived during the later half of the nineteenth century, most originating from central and eastern Europe. On each skull, Dr. Hyrtl recorded what he knew about the person; written directly onto the bone are names, birthplaces, occupations and causes of death. Occasionally there is a line or two on how the person had lived. As I looked at these museum artifacts, these human remains, I wanted to know the rest of the stories. That was the beginning of this project, The Hyrtl Simulacrum.

Being a visual fine artist with a background in forensic art, the first thing I want to do was to "see" these people. I set out to reconstruct the likeness of several of the individuals from their skulls, both two dimensionally and three dimensionally. The University of Pennsylvania's Anthropology department CT scanned the skulls and from those scans I am reconstructing the following Hyrtl members:

  • Girolamo Zini, age 20, Rope-walker. Died of atlanto-axial dislocation (broken neck).
  • Veronica Huber, age 18. Executed for the murder of her child.
  • 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.
  • Francisca Seycora, age 19. Famous Viennese prostitute. Died in the General Hospital of meningitis.
  • Rai Tao Si, Thai bandit, Famous criminal, guilty of many atrocities. Captured with ten of his band in Batavia (now Jakarta). Hanged in castle of Semarang (Java)
  • Andrejew Sokoloff. J. Scopzi (Russian sect that believes in Castration). Dies of self-inflicted Removal of testicles.
  • Geza Uirmeny, 80; Reformist, herdsman. At age 70 attempted suicide by cutting his throat. Wound not fatal. Lived until 80 without melancholy.

These are the very real subjects of this project.

I'll be using photoshop, maya and other computer graphic programs to complete the reconstructions. I'd love to go on and on about forensic art, facial reconstruction and the art and the science behind it all, but others have already done a such fantastic job at that. Of course I'll cover this in detail in my thesis paper and I'll post it here as an update to the project when it's funded.

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.

Helping to develop empathy for those who came before us develops empathy for those in our present lives and in our future.

The three dimensional reconstructions are the basis for the figures in the narrative dioramas contained within the simulacrums. They will be miniature versions of how the Hyrtl subjects looked in real life.

Within Maya, a database for each character will be created and stereolithography will be used to print them three dimensionally, creating small sculptures of the characters. These three dimensional prints of the Hyrtl subjects will be used in miniature dioramas. Which brings me to the other aspects of my thesis.

And here is where you come in ...

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.

Sometimes, higher truths can be found in fiction more so then in fact.

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. The dioramas will be divided by subject, scene and arranged on a circular platform.

This platform is manually rotated by the viewer using a basic gear and crank mechanism. Each diorama platform will be placed inside a closed cabinet, or box, with a view finder attached. Small interior lights will be inside the box to illuminate the scenes.

The user will experience this narrative in three ways. First by looking into the viewfinder and turning the crank to rotate the platform. Turning the circular platform reveals more scenes.

Secondly, by using a follow-focus mechanism the user adjusts the depth of field, changing the focal point within the scene. This allows the viewer to navigate the depth of each scene literally and figuratively.

And the third way in which the audience can experience the narrative is through the live video feed of everything the current simulacrum viewer is looking at, fed to a monitor in a darkened adjoining room. The feed will be an enlarged view of the miniature diorama at close to eye level. This will create a different experience for the viewer, placing them inside the scene verses outside, as it will feel looking through the viewfinder in the simulacrum. This illusion however, of becoming part of the scenes, affords the viewer no control over how the narrative plays out, as does the mechanisms in simulacrum. The viewers’ involvement becomes as passive overseers of someone else's narrative editing, even as they feel more “in scale” with the narrative.

With the concept and form of the project in place I’ve begun making the assets that will create the Hyrtl Simulacrum. I’ve started by creating one set of two dimensional reconstructions. These use a photo-compositing method from period images. I'm pleased with the results of this technique so far. I'll also complete a digital hand drawn reconstruction series.

The three dimensional reconstructions are coming together as well, however the cost of stereolithography at this time is prohibitive. I am prototyping different two dimensional and three dimensional methods in which to construct the dioramas in the meantime. The feed back on the two dimensional diorama prototype which utilized compositing of vintage photography was very positive, with most viewers expressing an interest to see more. I will complete a full diorama for one Hyrtl subject, Girolamo Zini, The Rope Walker, using this technique to user test before beginning three dimensional construction.

This is the part where I ask for your help. I'm hoping to make all eight of the simulacra, but after pricing it all out ... I will be happy to build one complete simulacra for the narrative. I'm hopeful that once the first is build it won't be difficult to get the rest funded.

I'd also like to take a minute send out a thank you  to everyone who has help me in big and small ways: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Without all of their support, advice and straight up helping hands I would not be as far as I am in making this happen.

If you would like to learn more about the collection please visit The College of Physicians of Philadelphia website.

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    I'll send you a ONE OF A KIND handmade signed portfolio of images from the project. These will be prints on transparencies, vellums, and other materials and will give you a special look into the project + you also get all of the other goodies: a handmade signed and numbered mini portfolio of all 8 images from the series + Your choice of one 11” x 14” signed archival print from the series + a piece of material used in construction + a personal thank you with an invitation to the opening + a thank you on my website!

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    You'll receive a ONE OF A KIND ORIGINAL WORK OF ART from the project + I'll send you a ONE OF A KIND handmade signed portfolio of images from the project + you also get all of the other goodies: a handmade signed and numbered mini portfolio of all 8 images from the series + Your choice of one 11” x 14” signed archival print from the series + a piece of material used in construction + a personal thank you with an invitation to the opening + a thank you on my website!

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Funding period

- (60 days)