the many meanings of hair

Hair: untold stories

Hair has been our most personal, natural form of adornment for millennia. We either hide it or show it, and it is so personal that it is regarded as an extension of the person itself. But hair is much more than that. The excellent exhibition Hair: untold stories in the Horniman Museum and Gardens is entirely devoted to the many meanings of hair.

Hair explores our relationship to human hair by looking at it from various perspectives. Researchers, artists, film makers, hair dressers, poets and photographers all weigh in to paint a vivid and sometimes unexpected picture of this material. The exhibition starts out with a section on hair as material: maybe not the first use to come to mind, but to me a refreshing way of looking at hair as something other than a part of our body or our appearance. Hair is a marvelous fibre: lightweight yet incredibly strong, flexible and absorbing. Hair was used to attach shark’s teeth to palm rib swords on the Kiribati islands in Oceania, but of course also in products related to hairstyling like wigs and fillers.

A large map illustrating the hair trade is very illuminating. I was aware that in many cultures, hair is shaven off for religious reasons, but never thought much about what that hair was used for: apparently, there is a thriving market for it, and not all of it goes to wig making. ‘Waste’ hair, collected when brushing, is sorted and sold as well. I learned that many early Afro wigs were made of yak hair coming from Central Asia and China, that nowadays synthetic wigs can also be made of fibres derived from banana skins, and much more.

What looks like a hair shop, is an art installation by Korantema Anyimadu, exploring the experiences of black and non-binary people with hair in the UK. Listening to their favourite songs, reading memories and looking around in the hair shop I learned a great deal about memories associated with the smell, feel, timing and handling of hair and the challenges of feeling ‘at home’ in a country where your basic hair care cannot be achieved so easily.

The section on Entanglements presents and discusses the balance between the personal aspects of hair and the social norms expected of the wearer: the eternal balance between individuality and the common. Bridal hair is associated with fertility and beauty, Victorian women were expected to wear their hair up when married, and keeping the first hairlocks of a child as memento is a worldwide phenomenon. Hair and death are shown in European mourning jewellery created with hair of the passed persons, and a topic I could personally relate to is how to deal with the loss of hair due to illness or chemotherapy.

A series of combs ends the exhibition: these are not just presented as hair maintenance tools, but as meaningful, powerful objects that can convey many messages. I really enjoyed this exhibition, as it managed to address many unexpected angles on hair in a comprehensible, enjoyable and thought provoking way.

Accompanying the main exhibition are several smaller photographic exhibitions: Cult Hair (on the lower gallery) and Intimate Archives (on the gallery above the World Gallery). The latter combines hair care rituals with spells and traditions, showing how acts of social care connect scattered and displaced people. A powerful expression of the meaning of body aesthetic, both as performative act and as carrier of identity!

Hair: untold stories in Horniman Museum and Gardens: find out more on the museum website

More on personal adornment in exhibitions and museums? Read about other collections here! Want to be kept in the know on new and forthcoming exhibitions and museum installations? Join the Jewellery List and have news delivered to your inbox!

Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. She considers jewellery heritage and a historic source. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, and on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the Society of Jewellery Historians, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, among many others. She curates exhibitions and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa & Southwest Asia.