HEAD CASE; NEW EXHIBIT ATTRACTS LIKE MINDS AND DIVERSE SKULLS

* What: “Skulls”

* Where: California Academy of Science, Golden Gate Park, S.F.

* When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day

* How much: $8.50 general; $5.50 ages 12-17, students and ages 65 and older; $2 ages 4-11; free, ages 3 and under, members

* Contact: 415-750-7145, www.calacademy.org

Poor Yorick’s skull alone might not have told Hamlet that the deceased had been a fellow of infinite jest and most excellent fancy.

Had the gloomy prince of Denmark more closely observed the skull, however, he could have estimated how large the court jester had been in life, and that likely he had been a European male. The teeth would show if he chewed his pottage on the right or the left. Healed fractures or abrasions would hint at past injuries or chronic infections that left their mark.

Alas, the tormented Dane had other things on his brain besides a skull, so to speak. The minds behind “Skulls,” a special exhibit opening today at the California Academy of Sciences, hold a far less mordant outlook. To them, the bony outer casing speaks more about the living than the dead.

The exhibit is the brainchild of executive director Dr. Patrick Kociolek, who plumbed the academy’s 20,000-plus strong research collection to bring nearly 1,500 skulls to the public eye. Most will be from extant species, although a number are fossils dating back more than a million years. Besides the extraordinary cranial display, “Skulls” also includes folk-art depictions and current academy research.

“People love things like this — to some extent, the creepier the better,” says Dr. Nina Jablonski, the academy’s anthropology department chair. The exhibit concentrates on the diversity within and between species.

“We’re choosing some of the ones with the most dramatic architecture — to see extremes in animal groups,” such as long-nosed fish or birds with pronounced protuberances, Jablonski says.

The exhibit also emphasizes the work of academy researchers such as Jablonski, intent on reconstructing the 3-million-year-old African monkey Theropithecus brumpti, and Dr. Douglas Long, who is tracking fur seal species on the Farallon Islands.

Other hard workers on display are the dermestid beetles, employed to do the final cleanup on a skull.

“A few hundred larvae can clean up a skull in about 48 hours,” Jablonski says. “They do a lovely job.” However, the beetles do have a bit of a “finicky” attitude. “They have to be kept warm and happy. … I hope they will be in the mood to be beetle-y.”

America’s current twin obsessions with dinosaurs and forensic science have spurred a deep fascination into what bones can tell. What has always existed, submerged or otherwise, has been a macabre interest in probing that mysterious missing link between life and death. Of all the bones, the skull most clearly articulates what once had been living.

“The skull housed (an) animal’s brain, the seed of their intelligence or cleverness,” says Jablonski. And even more eerie than imagining that perhaps we might have looked upon the animal’s or human being’s actual face at one time is the feeling of gazing upon our own mortality.

Some cultures believe skull shape reflects personality; the Western study of phrenology supposedly decodes people by the feel of the bumps on their heads. Other groups perceive a certain skull shape as being beautiful. Ancient Australian Aborigines and West Coast American Indians, for example, bound infants to a board (to flatten the back of their heads) or wound fabric about their soft skulls to make them conform to a particular shape.

Some Asian cultures consider touching the head as disrespectful. This “seat of consciousness,” Jablonski says, is sometimes believed to be able to pass on the spirit of its wisdom, as evidenced by Tibetan altar cups made from the skulls of esteemed llamas or monks.

The cranium of man or beast has usually been too fragile or fractured to be converted to everyday objects, although bones have been used for digging sticks or needles. Artistic renditions, from tattoos to skull masks, trade on its various meanings — death, wisdom, strength or power.

While all these meanings will be considered in “Skulls,” what the academy hopes is that people will come away realizing that the skull has a life and individuality of its own.

Also, visitors find themselves having more respect for their own brain casing. Unless one is a morose prince from a severely dysfunctional family, the living tend to be rather thick-skulled about their own invulnerability.

“Our ancestors weren’t doing bungee-jumping and extreme skateboarding,” Jablonski says. “The skulls are an excellent design, (but) they are only designed within the limits of our evolution — and we are beginning to exceed some of those limits.”

Events editor Vera H-C Chan may be reached at 925-977-8428 or vchan@cctimes.com.

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