Accepted paper:

The matter of death: hair samples in museum collections


Anne Faithfull (Deakin University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper focuses on how samples of human hair from Indigenous peoples are used and understood in museum collections in Australia and abroad. It considers how death and related issues of consent and potency affect perceptions and classifications of human remains.

Paper long abstract:

This paper focuses on human hair and how death affects perceptions and classifications of human remains in museum collections. People do not immediately become human remains upon death. Human remains in museums, particularly skeletal remains, have passed through several stages on their journey to being considered as such: from being a living person, to a deceased person, to a human body, before becoming human remains. Unmodified archaeological skeletal material especially seems to exemplify how human remains have been understood within the museum context. These remains are viewed to have been collected from people who were already-deceased at time of collection, and who thus did not give their consent for exhumation or acquisition. In contrast, hair is frequently excluded from this category. Disconnected from the whole and considered as distinct locks or samples, hair is not typically seen to undergo this same transformation to become a human remain. Instead, it is perceived as having been collected with permission from living people, even when this context of collection is unknown. Yet research involving hair sample collections in both Australia and beyond challenges this differentiation. Focusing specifically on remains collected from Indigenous peoples, I will consider how death and related issues of consent and potency can shape how bodies and body parts are understood in museums.

panel P12
Enlivening the dead: anthropology and heritage