Purchase Story

"Woven Strands: The Art of Human Hair Work" at the Mütter Museum

Five private collections of 19th-century Victorian hair artwork, never before publicly displayed together, will be exhibited at the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia from January 19 through July 12. The exhibition examines a domestic craft that employs human hair as textile in four distinctive art and jewelry techniques: palette work, gimp work, table work, and dissolved human hair work.

A favored folk art in the 18th and 19th century, hair art was a sentimental expression of grief and love, usually created by women who have become anonymous over time. Human hair from living and deceased persons was used to form flower bouquets, wreaths, braided jewelry chains, weeping willows, and painted scenes of mourning. Emily B. Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, calls hair work “a form of portraiture—cherished tokens to preserve the memory of a deceased loved one, chart a vibrant family tree of the living, or to be traded as friendship keepsakes.” It is rare to view such pieces publicly, because they were created in domestic settings for home display.

The exhibition is co-curated by John Whitenight and Evan Michelson, who along with Yates have assembled a group of hair art and jewelry as well as accompanying materials that explain the social expectations of Victorian-era mourning rituals. Whitenight is a collector of 19th-century decorative arts with a focus on objects created by hand and placed under glass domes. His book Under Glass: A Victorian Obsession, published in 2013, includes a chapter devoted to hair work. Michelson is an antiques dealer, collector, lecturer, writer, curator, and co-owner of Obscura Antiques and Oddities in New York City, and she was a costar of the television series Oddities, which ran for five seasons on the Science Channel. She was a founding board member of Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum, which closed in December 2016.

Since 2007, Morbid Anatomy, a supporter of the exhibition and symposium, has been “surveying the interstices of art and medicine, death and culture.” Started as a blog by Joanna Ebenstein, it is now run by Ebenstein with Laetitia Barbier, who served as programming director and head librarian of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn.

On April 7 and 8 the Mütter Museum, with the support of Morbid Anatomy, will present a weekend of hair arts-related programming. On Saturday, April 7, master jewelry and art historian Karen Bachmann will instruct a small workshop on creating 19th-century-style hair art. On Sunday, April 8, a daylong symposium will explore the art form, its process, and history with collectors, artists, and historians. For more information, contact Emil Snedden Yates, e-mail <[email protected]>, or phone (214) 399-1438.

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia was founded in 1787 by a group of physicians, including Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. It is not an academic organization, as the name suggests, but a not-for-profit educational and cultural institution with the mission of advancing the cause of health while upholding the ideals and heritage of medicine. The college is home to the Mütter Museum, a museum of medical history, which displays collections of anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments in a 19th-century setting. This includes slides of Einstein’s brain, the 139 skulls from Joseph Hyrtl’s collection, and a biannual rotation of art exhibits that accompany the themes and aims of the museum’s collections.


Originally published in the January 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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