By Robert Peck
Academy Senior Fellow and Curator of Art and Artifacts
Not since Bill Clinton received a controversial haircut on Air Force One in 1993 has presidential hair generated so much interest as when the Academy organized a small exhibition of it from an obscure collection in our archives in 2008.
When we displayed a few of our historic presidential locks over Presidents Day weekend that year, the public lined up to see them. As the guest curator of the exhibit, I was asked to give interviews by television networks, newspapers, magazines, and radio stations from across the U.S., and from as far away as New Zealand.
National Public Radio ran a lengthy interview on its popular “All Things Considered” news program, and talk-show hosts from across the political spectrum called to learn the story behind this unusual collection.
This month, in conjunction with the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, some of our historic hair from the presidents has been put on display again, this time in the exhibit Presidential Archives: Letters, Hair, and Fossils. This intimate exhibit also features other pieces of memorabilia linking the Academy to former U.S. presidents.
Among the many items on display is a letter about bird conservation sent to one of our curators by President Theodore Roosevelt, membership data from President U.S. Grant, and a number of animal fossils that belonged to President Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson once displayed these fossilized bones and teeth, collected for him by William Clark (of Lewis and Clark Expedition fame), in the White House, and later at his Virginia home, Mount Vernon. Today they are on view in the front hall of the Academy’s museum on Logan Circle. In an exhibit case nearby, is a tuft of hair from the man who once owned them.
While presidential involvement with science has long attracted interest, it is their hair samples that seem to be prompting the greatest public attention today. Our current exhibit has already led to a feature article in National Geographic, and a story in the flight magazine for Alaska Airways.
The presidential hair that is causing such a flap (hair samples from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson have been selected for the exhibit) is part of a much larger collection of “pile” that was assembled by a Philadelphia lawyer and Academy member named Peter Browne in the decades leading up to the American Civil War.
He began his collection by gathering wool samples from the many different kinds of sheep then being grown around the world. Browne hoped to provide information to American farmers about the best breeds of sheep to grow for commercial wool production.
Over time, he became fascinated by other kinds of animal fur and the differences in human hair as well. He hoped that he might be able to determine the history of human-kind’s origins and distribution around the globe by studying our hair.
He also hoped to determine if hair shape, size, or color might be indicative of relative intelligence, thus his interest in the hair of politicians. With the help of friends and relatives, Browne was able to secure hair samples from the first twelve presidents of the United States.
This year, with Philadelphia in the spotlight of presidential politics, we expect Brown’s rarely seen collection to attract every bit as much attention as it did eight years ago. We have extended an invitation to presidential candidates past and present, and to everyone else interested in either politics or science to see the exhibition.
If you come to the Academy while the show is on view, you can’t help but have a good hair day!
To read another post about the exhibit and hair collection, visit the Academy Blog.
Photos by Mike Servedio/ANS