Hairy Stories and Furry Tales

My name is Nikki, and I lead something of a double life – one half Visitor Team Assistant at the Manchester Museum, and one half hairdresser.

When I was invited to contribute a blog for The Manchester Museum Digital Gazette, I decided to investigate some of the ‘hairy’ exhibits at the museum, which led to my uncovering some very interesting  facts. As you can imagine, the museum is a place which offers an almost infinite wealth of inspiration, and many of the exhibits have given me creative ideas for phantasmic, ‘avant-garde’ styles that I would create if only people didn’t just need me to give them a few layers and a fringe.

In researching this piece, I took in the full range of our the galleries, well beyond the more obvious mammal exhibits in our Living Worlds gallery. It is surprising what you can find, if you only look around, oh and if you ask the ‘right’ people! (my thanks to both our curators and helpful Visitor Team colleagues). I even came across a link between a geological phenomenon and hair. Who knew!

In our Living Cultures gallery, the most obviously hairy exhibit is the huge and impressive wooden shield, decorated with tufts of human hair. This is a warrior’s shield from the Kenyan headhunting tribe of Borneo, dating from pre – 1935. The hair could have been taken from the heads of fallen enemies, and the shield itself would have been used as a symbol of martial prowess.


I was lucky enough to be shown some behind the scenes objects in the stores of a similar type – warrior spears from the Indian Naga tribe, also head-hunters, feared right up to the time of WW2. The spears are decorated with human and horse hair, dyed red in places, and this makes them look all the more formidable, as if dipped in the blood of their enemies! The hair may not always have been necessarily taken from decapitated heads, but could have just been donated and cut off in the normal way, although not necessarily with full consent of the owner!


The type of hair that was used on objects such as these, would be dictated by its accessibility. For example, the Naga people lived in the hill country of Northern India, so horses, humans, even possibly tigers would be the types of hair and fur available for their use, however, further up in the mountains of Tibet, local Buddhist peoples would have access to Yak hair, as seen on the Tibetan whisks  which I saw in the curatorial stores. These are my favourite objects, as their purpose is to waft away tiny living creatures, saving them from being trodden under foot, as Buddhists belief prohibits the killing of any living thing, no matter how small, even by accident.

buddist whisk

The Japanese Samurai armour and masks, also seem to have a combination of Yak and horse hair giving them impressive moustaches.These are embellishments to recreate the image of the symbolic animal that the warrior wanted to emulate, and the powers and particular qualities of that warrior animal. It could also simply add impact and drama to an intentionally scary face mask.


I was particlualrly struck by the sheer level of craftsmanship showcased within these objects, all hand crafted within traditional societies, gathered by collectors and preserved by Manchester Museum until the present. Hair does pose certain problems for conservators as it is an organic material, and therefore more likely to be eaten by bugs. Hairy exhibits are kept in highly monitored stores and a multidisciplinary Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach is implemented to protect and prevent damage to hairy and furry exhibits.

Another issue concerns the appropriate ethical, legal and cultural ancestral remains. Some objects that include human hair have been repatriated back to tribes and countries, who believe that if the hair ( or nails ) of a person have been used, they deserve the same ancestral burial rights as the person they were from. So out of respect, some objects have been repatriated, and Manchester Museum is proud to have been involved in the repatriation of acquired objects.

In our Natures Library gallery, there is a display case of volcanic lava and ash. One of the exhibits is a small sample of’ Pele’s Hair’, not the footballer, but Pele the volcano goddess. It looks like the sort of finely spun golden threads that Rapunzel made from her hair in the fairy tale, but it is actually, as the photo states, sprays of basaltic lava fountains that often get blown away from the volcano in strong winds, and cool quickly into thin hair-like strands.peles-hair

Pele’s Hair is also a nickname for the tangled plants that hang from the top of the large case of frogs and cone headed lizards in our vivarium. Perhaps it gained this nickname after it was introduced into Hawaiii in the 19th Century, as Hawaii is a volcanic island. It is also known as Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) and it is an air-plant or bromeliad type of plant that grows hanging down from tree branches.It has many practical uses – as an insulation, crafting and packing material, but is also said to be used as the stuffing for voodoo dolls in the Southern states of the USA.

spanish moss

In ancient Egypt hair was very important and carried symbolic significance bothin the making of wigs and in the way it was worn. I am very interested in the symbolism attached to facial hair. This can be seen within the ‘Two Brothers’ case on our ‘Ancient Worlds’ gallery – each sibling sports a different shaped beard, one straight and one curled. The curled beard is symbolic of Osiris as a god and the straight beard, of Osiris as a living king. The style of beard attributed to the deceased  persons coffin decoration would indicate their status and level of divinity.

Prior to the third century, beards were seen as being ‘in’ however in subsequent periods natural beards were seen more negatively as being ‘bad’ or ‘polluted’. As a result, full beards can be seen depicted on images of their enemies after this time. Living Egyptian rulers however, continued to wear false beards in the image of a living god, but with shaven faces and heads. On the famous ‘Narmer Palette’, King Narmer is depicted with his powerful god-like false beard, towering over his foreign enemies, who were depicted with full facial hair. Queen Hatshepsut even wore a false beard when she was pharaoh! Go girl!In the ‘Natures Library’ gallery I was spoilt for choice as to whom to include. I decided to only include one bird, as birds have an unfair advantage when it comes to impressive plumage, and feathers are not fur. The golden pheasant is quite a resplendent example, with THE most amazing quiff, and is also the very image of David Bowie, so he had to be involved!

Bowie Pheasant jpg
Separated at birth?

If you have ever had a problem with dandruff or head lice, spare a thought for the lowly sloth. The museum’s 3 toed ‘maned’ sloth is hanging upside down and his fur looks lovely and pristine, but in the wild you might be more likely to see a green sloth, covered in algae. As they move so slowly and hardly at all, their coarse fur gets damp and becomes the perfect breeding ground for the algae to settle. This creates a cosy and nutritious home for moths, cockroaches and other insects , and the algae can be a food supplement for baby sloths clinging to their parents. This sloth-algae situation is called a ‘ symbiotic relationship’..Im not sure humans could ever be symbiotic with nits and dandruff though.


Another amazing fact about sloth hair, is that it grows backwards. Imagine any other mammal with its fur growing downwards away from the direction of its spine, but if you look at a sloth, its fur grows upwards towards the spine. This is to enable water to drain more easily from it as it spends a lot of time hanging upside down.

Who’s got the best punk hairstyle in the museum? the Crested Porcupine of course! People used to think that the spines were poisonous and that porcupines could ‘fire’ them at attackers. This is not true, but they do detach very easily if the porcupine is attacked, so spines often end up stuck in the mouth or nose of an attacking animal and are hard to remove as they have barbs on the end, so the attacker may end up with an infected spiny wound, and complications from infection I guess could lead to death or illness so maybe thats why people thought they were poisonous.


Is there anything under the sea that is hairy? Yes ( well sort of ) ..The giant fan mussel in Natures Library has some hair like fronds called Byssus. This fibrous material is secreted by the mussels (and other bivalve molluscs) and is used as an anchor, attaching the mollusc to hard surfaces. A type of fine and valuable ancient cloth called byssus cloth or ‘sea-silk’ can be woven from byssus, and there is even a mention of it in the Rosetta Stone from Ancient Egypt, mentioning that a priest had been paid in byssus cloth.


However, in superstitious tales , sailors sometimes believed that byssus threads were the hair of drowned sailors.

Byssus filaments are not really hair, but are very like hair as they are made up of keratin and certain proteins.

Finally I wanted to include the best hair colour-combo from the museums mammals. I chose the handsome Ruffed Lemur from Madagascar, who looks like he has borrowed a suit from 3 different friends. He has black ( shirt ), ginger ( jacket ), white ( trousers) ,blonde AND brunette fur. Why be one colour when you can be them all?




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