A new exhibition at the Horniman Museum and Gardens highlights hair’s untold stories, from the meaning and importance of our hair, to how we use this extraordinary fibre, both on and off our heads.

Hair: Untold Stories opens at the Horniman in Forest Hill, South London on Saturday 4 December and features objects from the Horniman’s collection alongside artworks and installations.

From jewellery and dresses to armour and environmental protection, the show explores the potential of hair as a material. It also explores our complex relationship with hair – how and why we care so much about our hair, and how hair is entangled with society’s expectations and our relationships to others.

Alopecia UK Trustee Ruth McPherson was one of the community fieldworkers who contributed to the exhibition to ensure that the story of hair loss was represented within the stories told. 

Highlights of the exhibition include:

  • a dress made of human hair by artist Jenni Dutton, and two giant wigs – one displayed in the Horniman Gardens – by artist Isaac Olvera
  • a hair shop installation from Korantema Anyimadu, which explores the experiences of Black women and non-binary people with their hair in the UK
  • intricate clothing and jewellery made from hair by Naga people in India, and historic and contemporary hair jewellery made by Swedish women
  • stories and creative contributions of a group of people local to the Horniman, who met via Zoom over the summer of 2020, deep in the first Covid-19 lockdown, to share hair stories about identity, creativity and hair loss.

Weaving in stories from Forest Hill hairdressers to the global hair trade, and featuring the work of artists, film makers, designers and members of the public, Hair: Untold Stories is intimate, surprising and wide-ranging.

Ruth says: 

'Being a part of the Horniman Museum's 'Hair: Untold Stories' exhibition was a real privilege. I was one of 20 fieldworkers recruited from the diverse south London community to share our hair stories for the project. 

We met bi-weekly over Zoom during the summer of 2020 to discuss, learn and produce content which explored our  relationships with hair. It was great to have the opportunity to connect with a new group of people online, especially at a time when the UK was largely still in lockdown, and many of us were feeling disconnected from society. 

As I have alopecia areata, my contributions to the project focused on hair loss and identity, and I produced a video for the exhibition about my experience of living with alopecia and being a wig-wearer. I was really proud to share my story, and hope that it will help to raise awareness of the practical and emotional impacts of hair loss.'

The exhibition was curated in partnership with Emeritus Professor of Anthropology Emma Tarlo and Goldsmiths, University of London. The lead curator for the Horniman is Dr Sarah Byrne.

Sarah Byrne, Senior Curator of Anthropology at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, says:

‘Hair touches on so many aspects of life. It is deeply personal but is also caught up in social relationships and expectations. Hair is also an extraordinary fibre used to make a wide range of things from wigs, extensions, clothing, jewellery and embroidery to booms for mopping up oil spills.

We are delighted to have worked with so many talented artists, collaborators and co-curators in the realisation of this show. We know it will start some new and unexpected conversations about hair for our visitors.’

Hair: Untold Stories features work from artists, filmmakers and curators including Jane Hoodless, Sanne Visser, Jenni Dutton, Isaac Olvera, Farrah Riley Gray, Studio Swine, Rambisayi Marufu, Ufuk Gokkaya, Julian Knxx, Anna Sparr, Rose Sinclair, Habiba Nabisubi, Amy Pennington and Open Barbers, Erwan Fischou, Ryo Yamazki and Hiromo Yamazki, Keith Jarrett, Stacy Bias, Alix Bizet (in collaboration with Aasha John and students from Haberdashers’ Knights Academy, Bromley), and Cat Dunne (in collaboration with the Halo Collective).

Hair: Untold Stories is complemented by two other current exhibitions at the Horniman. Photographs from INFRINGE’s Cult Hair series feature some of London's unique and diverse hairstyles, celebrating hair unrestrained by mainstream beauty standards. The Intimate Archives exhibition is an assemblage of personal and found collections, Horniman Museum archives, and artistic collaborations – curated by Rambisayi Marufuoffering a window into African diasporic social experiments, rituals, and practices of hair care.

Hair: Untold Stories is open daily (except Wednesdays) 10am-5.30pm, from 4 December 2021 to 19 June 2022. Cult Hair is open now, until 31 August 2022. Intimate Archives is open now, until December 2022. All are free to visit but tickets must be booked in advance here

Hair: Untold Stories is the inaugural exhibition created for the Museums and Galleries Network for Exhibition Touring (MAGNET), supported by Art Fund, and will tour to two partners venues after its run at the Horniman – Tullie House in Carlisle in September 2022 and Museums Sheffield in 2023.

Well done Ruth for representing the alopecia community in this exhibition!