Here at the museum we have over 100,000 three-dimensional artifacts in our collection. They span thousands of years and hail from all around the world. As Halloween approaches we were thinking about the depth of our collection and how we could show some pieces that don’t get much face time with the public. We’ve been changing our case the lobby every few months and we thought this would be a great opportunity to feature some of our eerie artifacts. I’m not going to give too much away here because there are some remarkable artifacts in the case that you should see for yourself.
When we started preparing for this mini exhibit, we asked our interns to explore our collections with death and mourning in mind. They came back with unique artifacts including objects from an old funeral home, a mummified bird from ancient Egypt, and mourning jewelry. All of these objects made it to the exhibit but I found this one piece of jewelry fascinating. It is a necklace made of hair. Yes, human hair. Hair has been used for centuries in different art forms. In our collections we hold necklaces like this one, pendants, pins, and wreathes.
The art of hair jewelry began in a small Swedish town but slowly spread across Europe and was brought to America in the 19th century. It did not gain popularity until after the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in 1861 at which time she wore jewelry made of hair. There are a few reasons that hair was a great choice for decoration; it does not decay, it can be used with metalwork or precious gems without damaging either, and it is symbolic of the departed. The use of hair jewelry in mourning demonstrates a personal connection with the deceased.
If you look carefully at this picture, you can see the hair necklace from our collection around this woman’s neck. This image is from an ambrotype in the collection from around 1855. The woman in the photograph is identified as “Aunt Sadi Spencer,” a relative of the Cady family of Green Bay. After some time in our research library and collections I’m sad to say I was unable to find any further information about Sadi Spencer or who may have died for her to be wearing the necklace. But we’ll keep an eye out for our mystery woman and if anyone has any information about her we’d love to see it!
You can see these pieces and the rest of the Artifacts of Death exhibit in our lobby until November 14th.
Lisa Zimmerman, Curator