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Death and Desire – hair on show from the Turnbull Library’s collections

Press Release – Alexander Turnbull Library


Miss Mima (Jemima) Potto, photographed ca 1870s-1880s by William James Harding: Alexander Turnbull Library

Hair (yes, actual hair) is the theme of the Alexander Turnbull Library’s Death and Desire exhibition, opening on Monday in the newly refurbished Turnbull Gallery at the National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa in Wellington.

Over the last 100 years a surprising amount of hair has made its way into the Turnbull collections – alongside the more usual documentary heritage for which the Library is known, says ATL Curator NZ & Pacific Publications, Dr Fiona Oliver.

The exhibition includes Katherine Mansfield’s ponytail, discovered in a metal trunk of her papers and other belongings; a lock of hair belonging to the mother of composer Douglas Lilburn; and a wooden box of hair kept since 1771 by the family of a Supreme Court judge.

“For many cultures hair is charged with symbolic and sacred meaning; Victorian-era Europeans, including those who emigrated to New Zealand, gave it almost fetishistic value. The locks, hanks, curls and clippings in the exhibition can be seen by turn to be both exquisite and disturbing,” says Dr Oliver.

“Most of the hair on display belonged to these Victorians. Mourners took it from the dead to weave into jewellery or flowers, as a memento of the deceased, and a reminder of the remorseless passing of time. For lovers, a lock of hair was a most personal keepsake, worn near the heart, to symbolise incorruptible love.”


Carte de visite portrait of Tangiora, taken 22 March 1884 by Samuel Carnell of Napier.

Death and Desire revisits these Victorian themes alongside contemporary artworks utilising hair, continuing these stories of memory, loss and desire, Dr Oliver says.

Death & Desire: Hair in the Turnbull Collections is at the Turnbull Gallery (Level 1, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Molesworth Street, Wellington, from 18 June to 7 September 2018.

The Alexander Turnbull Library is always pleased to consider items for donation to the collection, and gifts or bequests. Donations to Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust or to the Friends of the Turnbull Library help to support the Turnbull Library’s collections and their research use.

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