Anatomical drawing of a skull with many small letters and red outlines suggesting the human face.

Skull Base Knowledge. Cultural Implications of Cranial Plastic Surgery

As a starting point, the project chose the discrepancy between the technologically advanced procedures in plastic surgery and the vague terminology used in the evaluative description of its ‘objects.’ The project investigated the cultural and scientific-historical origins of implicit cultural norms and ideals regarding physical appearance (and its function as an indicator of personality) as it presents itself in the current medical discourse, in visual representations, and in medical practice and therapy. Here, the project focused on the human skull as a body part which plays a crucial role in self-perception and in the perception of others.

The project responds to specialized surgical practices (the correction of cranial malformations in infant skulls [Craniosynostosis] at the Charité University Hospital Berlin) demanding an incorporation of cultural preconditions and contexts into their practice and therapy. The project aimed at developing the preconditions which allow for a reflected and patient-oriented working method supported by knowledge.

The historical part of the project investigated the genesis of a ‘well-formed’ (child’s) skull, a concept that emerged from the correlation of medical knowledge, the arts, and cultural semantics. The contemporary part of the project organized an exchange between medical doctors and patients.

The three parts of the project analyzed the following:

  1. Texts (textbooks and professional articles from the field of plastic surgery),
  2. Visualizations and models as a template of normality (proportion studies for artists, anatomy textbooks, medical photographs, imaging techniques, databases for the preparation of therapy),
  3. Practice and therapy (observational supervision of individual cases, interviews with patients).
Funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, “Schlüsselthemen der Geisteswissenschaften” 2011–2015
Head researcher(s): Sigrid Weigel, Ernst-Johannes Haberl, Academic Consulting: Michael Hagner, Academic Coordination: Uta Kornmeier (ZfL)
Partner(s): Research collaboration between the Center for Literary and Cultural Research Berlin (ZfL) and Pediatric Neurosurgery of the Charité – University of Medicine Berlin
Guest(s): Martin Kemp, Nichola Rumsey, Eva Wandeler


Texts: Rhetoric and Cultural Semantics of Cranial Knowledge in Medicine

Associate Researcher(s): Simon Strick

Focusing on the genealogy of and current discourse on craniosynostosis, this project analyzes the discursive field of the »malformed skull«. Since the discovery of prematurely fused cranial sutures by Virchow around 1860 and the routinization of its surgical treatment about 40 years ago, the vocabulary to describe the pathological skull shape has changed considerably. Through qualitative content-analysis of medical articles and textbooks, the project will establish the semantic field that characterizes cranial knowledge. With special attention to the cultural and historical connotations of medical rhetoric (»malformation«, »deformity«), the study examines the underlying cultural assumptions behind the distinction between »deviant« and »normal« head shapes.

Visualizations: Cranial Images in Art, Medicine and Statistics

Associate Researcher(s): Uta Kornmeier

All medical professional publications work with visualizations (whether they are drawings, photographs, diagrams, or pictures and models produced by imaging technologies). As art history, visual studies, and media studies have demonstrated, images are not merely illustrations of pre-existing knowledge but play an instrumental part in the actual generation of that knowledge.

This project analyzes the specific rhetoric of images in contemporary and historical cases involving craniosynostosis along with different interactions between text and image.

Medical Practices: Physician-Family Interaction

Associate Researcher(s): Birgit Griesecke

Craniosynostosis diagnoses and operations affect both self-perception and how an individual is perceived by others. What questions, doubts, and hopes come to light when societal expectations, cultural patterns of significance, and the possibilities of advanced surgery meet? And what decision-making and communication patterns also become apparent? Valuable insights can be found in a range of sources, including conversations between doctors and patients (or their next of kin); statements; accounts from forums, blogs, webpages, brochures, and advice books; and technical and practical everyday testimonies. Using semantic analysis (e.g., analysis of speech and language games, phraseme research), the subproject will explore the cultural semantic space in which craniosynostosis is dealt with and treated: How do estimates of shape and deformation figure explicitly and implicitly into language? What linguistic means and argumentative tactics are employed in the decision-making process for or against an operation? How is the temporal dimension of problems associated with craniosynostosis (e.g., simulations of the growing skull, anticipated future experiences in social settings, subjunctive self-understanding, retrospective biographical narratives) adopted into language?

Cultural Historical Investigations into Correlations between the Figure of the Doctor and the Artist

Dissertation Project
Associate Researcher(s): Li Anna Töppe

The dissertation project examines interrelations between art and plastic surgery. The focus of the analysis is the search for form and how it is constituted in both disciplines.

The project aims at characterizing this relationship by looking at the specific ways materials are used and techniques are established at the end of the 19th and over the course of the 20th century in both contexts. Concepts of movement and immobility as well as of the body are also considered in order to understand the processes and outcomes within the »productions« of forms.


Birgit Griesecke, Ernst-Johannes Haberl, Uta Kornmeier, Simon Strick, Sigrid Weigel

Schädel Basis Wissen I
Kultur und Geschichte der chirurgischen Korrektur der Schädelform

Kulturverlag Kadmos, Berlin 2017, 288 pages
ISBN 978-3-86599-361-8
Uta Kornmeier (ed./eds.)

Schädel Basis Wissen II
Texte zur Wissensgeschichte eines Knochens

Kulturverlag Kadmos, Berlin 2017, 398 pages
ISBN 978-3-86599-362-5


12 Jun 2023 · 6.00 pm

Ernst Johannes Haberl, Sigrid Weigel: Begrifflichkeit und Chirurgie – am Beispiel angeborener Schädeldeformation

Klinik für Psychiatrie und Psychotherapie, Charité Campus Mitte, Chariteplatz 1, 10117 Berlin. Bonhoefferweg 3, Seminarraum 41, 3. Ebene

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28 May 2018 · 6.00 pm

Uta Kornmeier/Stefan Zachow: Von Angesicht zu Algorithmus. Digitale Repräsentationen von Gesicht und Schädel

Universität zu Köln, Albertus-Magnus-Platz, 50923 Köln, Neuer Senatssaal

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Panel auf der Annual Conference of the German Studies Association
21 Sep 2014 · 12.30 pm

Medical Self-Fashioning. Twentieth and Twenty-first Century Case Studies at the Intersection of Medicine, Public Discourse, and Literature

Kansas City, Missouri Westin Kansas City at Crown Center, Penn Valley Room

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11 Sep 2014 – 11 Jan 2015 · 7.00 pm

Kopfarbeit. Videoperformances von Eva Wandeler

Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum der Charité, Charitéplatz 1, 10117 Berlin

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12 Jul 2014 · 10.00 am

Der Möglichkeitsraum des Digitalen in der Chirurgie

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Trajekte-Tagungsraum 308

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15 May 2014 – 16 May 2014

Begriffswelten der Schädelchirurgie. Zur kulturellen Semantik von Craniosynostosen

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Trajekte-Tagungsraum 308

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29 Apr 2014 · 5.30 pm

Uta Kornmeier/Simon Strick: Anatomie und Ästhetik. Der Schädel als Objekt formgebender Chirurgie

Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum der Charité, Charitéplatz 1, 10117 Berlin, Hörsaalruine

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Vortrag im Rahmen der Ausstellung »Bin ich schön?«
14 Jan 2014 · 6.30 pm

Simon Strick: Digitale Schönheit. Avatare, Geschlechtsideale und das ›Uncanny Valley‹

Museum für Kommunikation, Leipziger Str. 16, 10117 Berlin-Mitte

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07 Nov 2013 · 1.30 pm

Uta Kornmeier: Visualising the skull - what is normal?

Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museum

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Vortrag im Rahmen der Ausstellung »Bin ich schön?«
15 Oct 2013 · 6.30 pm

Uta Kornmeier: Schöne Effekte! Zwischen Heiligenschein und Stigma

Museum für Kommunikation, Leipziger Str. 16, 10117 Berlin-Mitte

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14 Jun 2013 · 9.00 am

Ernst-Johannes Haberl/Uta Kornmeier: Schädelform als Wert. Chirurgische Korrektur von Schädelformen

Universität Freiburg, Platz der Universität, 79098 Freiburg, Aula, KG I

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Jahrestagung des ZfL/Annual Conference of ZfL
08 Nov 2012 – 10 Nov 2012 · 4.00 pm

Culture Meets Surgery. Images, Models, and Interpretations of the Human Skull

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Trajekte-Tagungsraum 308

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Media Response

25 Feb 2019
Interdisziplinäre Kopfarbeit. Schädel-Deformationen bei Neugeborenen

Neu zusammengesetzt: Ein Projekt zu Schädelformen verbindet Kulturwissenschaft mit klinischer Praxis. Es berührt heikle historische und chirurgische Fragen. Article by Astrid Herbold, in: Tagesspiegel, 25 Feb 2019

22 May 2015
Chirurg will Kopf transplantieren. Über die Bedeutung des Schädels

Radio interview with Uta Kornmeier on the topic head transplantation, in: Deutschlandradio Kultur, program Studio 9, 20 May 2015, (7:39 min)

19 Nov 2014
Medizinhistorisches Museum: Ausstellung ›Kopfarbeit‹

Die Sonderausstellung mit dem Titel ‘Kopfarbeiten’ kuratieren die Kunsthistorikerin Dr. Uta Kornmeier und Dirk Naguschewski. Report by Stefan Sperfeld, in: RBB Fernsehen, program rbbpraxis, 19 Nov 2014

11 Sep 2014
Kopfarbeit. Videoperformances von Eva Wandeler

Radio feature, in: RBB Kulturradio am Vormittag, program Kulturkalender, 11 Sep 2014, 09:30

20 Nov 2013
Michelangelos Skalpell

Audio lecture by Uta Kornmeier. Radio feature in the series ‘Schönheit’, in: DRadio Wissen, program Hörsaal, 20 Nov 2013 (29:26 min)

14 Nov 2013
Sketchy information. illustration as a tool of understanding

Symposium considers drawing’s role in refining and communicating knowledge, from geology to surgery to unicorns. Article by Matthew Reisz, in: Times Higher Education, 14 Nov 2013

01 Jul 2013
Der Wert des Körpers. Interdisziplinäres FRIAS-Symposion

Conference report, in: FRIAS NEWS 08 (07/2013), 32-33

15 Nov 2012
Solche schönen Schädel gibt es nicht einmal in der Kunst

Die Kulturwissenschaftler wenden sich dem Körper zu. Jetzt trafen sie sich in Berlin zu einer Tagung mit plastischen Chirurgen. Article by Volker Breidecker, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 15 Nov 2012

12 Nov 2012
Treffen der Kopfarbeiter

Chirurgen, GeisteswissenschaftlerInnen und Kulturschaffende widmen sich auf einer Tagung dem Thema ‘Schädel’. Article by Elise Graton, in: tageszeitung, 12 Nov 2012

10 Nov 2012
Mehr als nur Kopfgeburten: Kultur und Chirurgie kommen zusammen

Eine Tagung des Zentrums für Literatur- und Kulturforschung Berlin befasst sich mit Schädelformen. Interview with Uta Kornmeier, in: Deutschlandfunk, program Kultur heute, 10 Nov 2012, 17:30

30 Jun 2012
Herausforderungen für Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft

Annual report 2011 about the funding area ‘Herausforderungen für Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft’ of the VolkswagenStiftung funding the ZfL project ‘SchädelBasisWissen’

12 Jan 2012

Chirurgen und Kunsthistoriker untersuchen gemeinsam ästhetische Gesichtspunkte. Radio feature by Anke Schäfer, in: Deutschlandfunk, program: Aus Kultur- und Sozialwissenschaften, 12 Jan 2012, 20:10

27 Apr 2011
Schädel nach Norm

Von der Kopfform wird auf den Charakter geschlossen. Chirurgen und Kulturhistoriker bearbeiten das Gebiet gemeinsam. Article by Claudia Schmölders, in: Tagesspiegel, 27 Apr 2011

02 Apr 2011
Schädelbasiswissen. Alles reine Kopfsache

Article by Cornelia Werner, in: Hamburger Abendblatt, 2 Apr 2011

31 Mar 2011

Apparate und Technik dominieren heute die Medizin. Doch es gibt Situationen, in denen es Ärzten nicht mehr ausreicht, nur die Technik, nur das Handwerk zubeherrschen. Radio feature by Anke Schäfer, in: Inforadio RBB, program: Wissenswerte - Forschung im Gespräch, 31 Mar 2011, 10:25

29 Mar 2011
Chirurgen suchen nach der optimalen Kopfform

Article by Norbert Lossau, in: Die Welt, 29 Mar 2011

28 Mar 2011
Berliner Neurochirurg geht neue Wege

Article by Norbert Lossau, in: Berliner Morgenpost, 28 Mar 2011

27 Mar 2011

Deutsche Mediziner und Geisteswissenschaftler wollen gemeinsam ein Tabuthema aufarbeiten. Article by Norbert Lossau, in: Welt am Sonntag, 27 Mar 2011

27 Mar 2011
Welcher Kopf ist normal?

Article by Norbert Lossau, in: Welt am Sonntag, 27 Mar 2011

21 Mar 2011
Wie wir vom Kopf auf den Charakter schließen

Press release of the VolkswagenStiftung, 21 Mar 2011