Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Wellcome Object of the Month: Hair Mourning Jewelry

It is easy to miss these four little brooches, tucked away as they are in the far corner of Medicine Man alongside Egyptian canopic jars, mortuary crosses and even a shrunken head. But these examples of European mourning jewellery demonstrate an ambiguity at the heart of Henry Wellcome’s collection – the potential for the human subject to become material object after death.

Medicine Man is full of curios serving as literal or metaphorical extensions of the human body, and, like most medical collections, also features artefacts formerly part of the body itself. These brooches are no exception, each containing samples of human hair, neatly arranged and set behind glass.

Hair is certainly a material that occupies the narrow ground between person and thing – in life as much as death. Although it is ‘dead’ matter (as only the follicle contains living cells), once separated from the body, our hair is capable of outlasting us. These qualities of durability, alongside the fact that it is easily removed from the body and can be manipulated into almost any shape, led to the widespread use of hair in the 18th and 19th centuries as a tangible way to remember an absent loved one. Encased in a locket, ring or brooch, a lock of hair stood in for the recently departed, whose memory, it was hoped, would endure for as long as the jewellery itself.

But detached hair, alienated from its natural location on the body, can also provoke disgust – a reaction any of us who have found a stray hair in our food can identify with. The anthropologist Mary Douglas proposed that any ‘matter out of place’, including hair, becomes dirt, posing the threat of chaos and disorder unless carefully gathered and contained (1966)...
Read the full story from which the above image and text are excerpted on the Wellcome Collection blog by clicking here.

Image: Mourning brooches containing the hair of a deceased relative. Wellcome Images

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