Origins of the Afro Comb: Cambridge museums explore 6,000 Years of Culture

By Ben Miller | 26 June 2013

Exhibition preview: Origins of the Afro Comb - 6,000 Years of Culture, Politics and Identity, The Fitzwilliam Museum and The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, July 2 – September 28 2013

A photo of a carved wooden head of an African person
© Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Partly a campaign to persuade the public to provide their own hairy stories, this dual-site exhibition is also a chance to show hair traditions across Africa and the world.

The combs themselves are works of art. Some are carved in wood with geometric designs, others are sculpted in ivory or layered with colourful glass beads.

And at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, they are accompanied by a series of art installations illustrating the development of the global black hair industry and the politicising of Afros and dreadlocks.

Curator Sally-Ann Ashton is collating research into Egyptology, Jamaican anthropology and elements of black history and curatorship.

“Much of the work here has involved a very lively community of people today,” says Ashton, who captured their voices in soundbites, which are now audible by sitting under one of several hairdryers on display.

“The personal items add depth to the story we are telling here.

“One of the most important displays in the exhibition is a case of combs with lost histories.

“They have no story because it was never recorded at the time – now we have no way of knowing.”

Inspired by loans from the British Museum, the Petrie Museum and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria, Ashton wants the public to help out.

“With enough contributions we can create an important archive. It will reflect a unique part of our global culture today and continue the story for future generations.

“We would love to hear from anybody who uses the combs today, who thinks about hair styles and what they might mean in general, or who might just be interested in cultural history on a global scale.”

  • Fitzwilliam open 10am-5pm (12pm-5pm Sunday, closed Monday except Bank Holidays). Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology open Tuesday-Saturday 10.30am-4.30pm, Admission to both venues is free. Follow the museums on Twitter @FitzMuseum_UK @CamUnivMuseums.
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