Dead Heads in San Francisco
Sunday, September 29, 2002; Page E07
What: "Skulls," an exhibit that dissects the noggins of all things furry, slippery and feathery.
Where: California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco.
Why: Explore the anatomical wonders that lie between the hairline and the cerebral cortex -- and you don't even have to be a brain surgeon.
Dead heads have invaded San Francisco, but you won't find them in Haight-Ashbury. Instead, they're hanging on the walls of this Bay Area institution's Natural History Museum, in leafy Golden Gate Park.
The academy is known for its gray matter, with cerebral exhibits like "X-Ray Ichthyology," but "Skulls" blends the brainy with the blech. Placards offering tidbits worthy of Trivial Pursuit co-exist nicely with spooky skulls with hollow eyes and smarmy smiles. The (live) flesh-eating bugs on display, though, are in a genus of their own.
The exhibit, open until winter 2003, is packed into one large, long room and is divided into three themes: skulls as science, as research and as art. For the latter, artworks and ethnic crafts demonstrate how cultures from Manhattan to the Himalayas are inspired by -- or deferential to -- the concept of death.
Reproductions by Smithsonian-caliber artists adorn an entire wall, including a self-portrait of Andy Warhol with a skull, Georgia O'Keeffe's painting of prairie road-kill and Picasso in his Dostoevsky period. There are also Day of the Dead sugar skulls, painted in festive colors, and a Tibetan pellet drum made of severed heads, used to ward off evil -- or at least scare off interlopers.
But what really stands out are the rows of animal skulls, some as small as a fingernail (the shrew) or as large as a tuba (Asian elephant). The massive collection would please Darwin, but it also indulges any budding forensic scientist, as skulls are littered with clues that allow Junior Sleuthers to ascertain how a critter died.
One display, for example, shows a pair of elk skulls whose antlers were locked during battle. Unable to detach, the two beasts roamed the forest like Siamese twins until they died of starvation. Their conjoined heads remain testament to their devastating demise.
Hundreds of sea lion skulls, meanwhile, offer a scary glimpse into the perils of living undersea. The oblong heads with Bette Davis eyes show evidence of shark bites, gunshot wounds and nylon fishing nets that, in one case, cut right through bone and brain.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company