Celine West shows how head spanners and glass eyes can be used to unpack prejudice.

Issues of identity and personality are important aspects of learning about oneself and there are a number of ways that museum resources can be used to set up learning opportunities for young people. At University College London (UCL), we have used resources based on the work of Francis Galton. These can form the foundations for learning about contemporary issues such as the uses of biometric data and identity cards and the social climate in Britain that informs them.

Galton’s anthropometrics

Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) was fascinated by all aspects of our physical identity and sought to find links between physical characteristics and personality traits. Was it possible to find defining features that social groups such as soldiers or schoolboys had in common?

In the pursuit of such knowledge he used anthropometrics, the measurement of the human body, eventually providing the first mathematical proof of the individuality of fingerprints. This led to the establishment of the first fingerprint bureau at Scotland Yard in 1901 and gave police the world over a secure evidence base for matching suspects to the scene of a crime.

Object-handling investigation

Replicas of Galton’s equipment are used in an object-handling investigation to stimulate small group discussions about identity. The objects include:

  • a head spanner – a tool Galton made specially for taking a range of measurements of head size
  • a selection of different-coloured glass eyes and hair samples
  • composite photographs – images constructed by superimposing exposures of different members of a group such as a family to achieve an ideal type
  • a set of fingerprints and a magnifier.

Groups of students handle each object in turn and produce a spider-diagram to show what they think Galton was interested in. Their conclusions focus on Galton’s concern with what makes us similar and what makes us different or unique. The composite photographs are used to encourage students to consider the links that may be made between physicality and personality. The glass eyes and hair samples are often used in the groups in exactly the way Galton used them, for categorising people. The composite photographs provide the key object in making links between physical identity and personality as the students consider why someone wanted to look at groups who were identified by their occupation or behaviour. When students are told that one of the images is of a group of criminals they very often decide which image it is according to how the person looks. This provides an ideal opportunity for discussions about personal prejudices – the class leader can challenge their assumption and point out how they have instinctively made a judgement about someone based on the way they look.

This whole exercise leads very well into discussions and activities about our prejudices and the importance of recognising that we all have prejudices, however mild – for example the judging of someone by their shoes. It also leads into activities that ask students to look at how they regard themselves. What defines their identity? How important are the clothes they wear and the things they own? How much of their personality is revealed by how they look?

‘All of my fingerprints are loops – it must mean something!’

Taking our fingerprints is another activity that can be used to stimulate such discussions about identity. Once each student has a set of fingerprints they are asked to record which of the three main types their prints are (whorl, loop and arch). They are then asked, what this means. The answer is that it is a meaningless analysis of type that has no bearing on a person’s physical or mental identity. Finding patterns often leads to the assumption that they must have some meaning, so this is another activity that highlights our attachment to categorising our world, something that underpins stereotyping and prejudice. These activities can remind young people of the inaccuracy of judging on looks, which can inform both general attitudes towards others as well as issues of choice in sexual health situations.

Fingerprinting can also provide the basis for very different discussions about identity and society: they can be used to introduce young people to the topical issues of biometric data and identity cards. Questions to be raised include:

  • What rights does a society or an institution have to record an individual’s biometric data?
  • What limits should there be on uses of such data?
  • What reasons are there for introducing identity cards containing biometric data in Britain?

Schools have been taking children’s fingerprints for identity purposes and using iris-scanning in the lunch queue, adding an extra dimension to the debate about the uses of biometric data.

Identity cards

In our group activities, students are provided with basic background information on opinions for and against identity cards, such as prevention of identity fraud and terrorism, the cost of administering the system and potential uses of a database of biometric data. Students participate in a structured debate about the introduction of identity cards; these sessions always develop into heated discussions as the students form strong opinions about an individual’s rights and the needs of the state.

Using historical objects and kinaesthetic activities is one way of leading groups of young people into discussions or written activities about wide social topics such as identity, prejudice and individuals’ rights. Such sessions provide a range of learning opportunities catering for different learning styles. They also blend contemporary concerns with developing stronger ideas about who we are as individuals and how we identify ourselves.

Further information

Fingerprinting in schools http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/story/0,,1821128,00.html

Francis Galton www.galton.org
Galton resources at UCL www.museum.ucl.ac.uk/galton/learning

Celine West is education and access officer at UCL Museums and Collections.

First published in Learning for Life, October 2006