A handful of museums around the world use over-the-top displays of tenderly-treated tresses to detail how hair has acted as an important cultural signifier through time.

What if strands of history could be traced through strands of hair? As strange as it sounds, a handful of museums around the world have attempted to do just that, with over-the-top displays of tenderly-treated tresses.

Across countries and throughout time, human hair and its various styles have acted as important cultural signifiers, symbolising wealth, status and age. Follow the course of history with one of these several exhibitions on locks from centuries past.  

Museé de Quai Branly, Paris, France
A temporary exhibit running until 14 July, Cheveux Chéris (Beloved Hair) aims to explore the anthropology and social impact of hair. The display features objects such as an African chieftain’s headdress, locks of hair that served as mementos of children or of the dead from Victorian England and strands of hair that were cut after an initiation retreat in Papua New Guinea.

Along with the physical specimens, paintings, sculptures and photographs detailing the differences in hair among cultures and eras are on display. 

Japanese Coiffure Museum, Kyoto, Japan
Hair gets small in this museum, which chronicles the changes in Japanese hairstyles over time. More than 115 styles are reproduced at one-fourth of life–size as wigs on mannequins. The collection also includes 200 geisha hair ornaments and combs. A 75-minute video explains how to create some of the intricate styles.

Chez Galip Hair Museum, Avanos, Turkey
Housed inside a cave in the ancient region of Cappadocia, the Chez Galip Hair Museum catalogues the hair of more than 16,000 women from around the world by hanging the strands across the cave’s arches. Local potter Chez Galip started the museum in 1979, fascinated by stories of women who leave their hair behind as a memento for a loved one. Since then, many women who have visited the cave have cut a lock of their own hair, tying it to a card with their phone number and address.

Twice a year, Galip pulls 10 strands from his collection and invites these women back to Avanos, Turkey for a week-long pottery workshop to thank them for contributing to the museum.

Leila’s Hair Museum, Independence, Missouri
The framed wreaths on display at Leila’s are not always immediately recognised as human hair. The intricate works all date to before 1900, when it was fashionable for European and North American families to preserve their hair in works of art or jewellery resembling flowers or leaves.  Leila Cohoon’s collection of 159 wreaths and more than 2,000 pieces of jewellery has continued to grow as people hear of the museum and donate family pieces.