Skip to content

By Lewis Pollard on

Hidden Treasures of Our Collection: Mystery chair

This unusual chair was used to take portraits of a particular kind of person. Can you guess who?

As someone without a background in photography, film, television, or media, I often find myself mystified by the objects I deal with on a daily basis. However, I regularly come across material that no amount of expertise can prepare you for. In this series I’m going to highlight some of the weird and wonderful objects I come into contact with down here in the museum’s collection stores.


Mystery Chair

Let’s start this post with a guessing game. Below is a picture of a chair that was used to take portraits of a particular kind of person. Can you guess who?

Mystery Chair
Can you guess who might have sat here?

This is one of my favourite parts of the collection to turn the tables on our tour takers (and now blog readers). Instead of me telling them about the history and purpose of this chair, I ask them to take a guess. It’s a nice way to shake up the expected routine of a guided tour.

But maybe it’s a little cruel of me to ask such a difficult question. To date I’ve only had 6 instances of someone guessing the right answer. But I think it’s more interesting to hear the incorrect answers, to see what sort of person my tour-goers thinks deserves to sit in such an imposing and uncomfortable chair. Here are my top three answers:

  • A child
  • An animal
  • A deceased person (i.e. for post-mortem photographs)

And they are all good guesses. It’s hard to tell from an image, but it is a very small chair (less than a metre tall). And it definitely looks far too uncomfortable for holding a person who wants to be there. It’s in that last part that I think the big clue resides. Last chance to guess!

This chair was used to take mug-shots of prisoners.

The original reasoning behind this chair was that a) prisoners needed to be photographically recorded (an act in 1871 stated all UK prisoners needed their photograph taken), and b) the process should be as quick and hassle-free as possible. This chair was the product of these two ideas. Here’s how:

  • The chair, as mentioned, is very low. This was done so that the head of the prisoner would be in line with that brace at the back. If they were small they would fit fine, if they were tall their head would be in the same place, even if their knees went up to their chest.
  • The chair has very large ridges in the seat.
Criminal photographic posing chair c.1880
Criminal photographic posing chair c.1880. © Science Museum Group collection

This would make sitting down in any position uncomfortable, but even more so if the subject was not sat with legs together and facing forward. Any other position would cause great discomfort. It has the added purpose of making the subject want to co-operate so they would be able to stand again. You’d want to be off that chair as soon as possible, so it’s best to just obey and get it over with.

So you see, the idea was to create a situation where the photographer could set their camera up for the day: correct height, focussing distance etc, and then not have to touch it again aside from taking the actual picture. The prisoner sits down, the photographer takes the snap, they get up and leave, repeat. It’s an unnerving efficiency. And on that subject, you may have noted that modern mug-shots are taken from two angles; face-on, and in profile. These were no different. Next to the chair there would also be an angled mirror, which would allow a profile view to be taken at the same time as the face-on one, producing both on the same end image.

And we do have examples of mug-shots taken with similar methods in our collections, like the following example:

 Photographs of inmates at Wormwood Scrubs prison
‘Photographs of inmates at Wormwood Scrubs prison’ c.1890. © Science Museum Group collection

The reason they are showing their hands was so that any identifying marks or tattoos could be noted at the same time.

So when you see portraits of people from the past and they look very uncomfortable and stiff, you can rest assured that it could be a lot worse for them.

Tours of our collection stores take place at 13.00 every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday up to Thursday 22 December 2016.

One comment on “Hidden Treasures of Our Collection: Mystery chair

  1. Had so much fun looking at this today with you Lewis. I guessed correctly!
    Nice to have a tour that is relaxed and informal.
    Thanks again.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *