Origins of the Afro Comb: 6,000 Years of Culture, Politics and Identity, the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The Fitzwilliam Museum.
Gallery 13 (Mellon) and 8 (Octagon), Free Entry.
2nd July – 3rd November 2013.

The temporary exhibition Origins of the Afro Comb: 6,000 years of Culture, Politics and Identity is displayed across two rooms. The first explores the historical and geographical development of the comb, while the second examines the place of the comb in the African diaspora and its cultural significance today. The exhibition has been curated by Egyptologist and Senior Assistant Keeper in the Department of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Dr Sally-Ann Ashton, and developed as a result of community responses to the Museum’s ancient Egyptian collection.

As a comparative study of material culture the exhibition presents a typology of hair combs throughout African history. Beginning with an extensive collection from ancient Egypt and Sudan the exhibition invites visitors to trace the development of the comb, in both design and concept, through to 20th century Africa and influences beyond the continent. As such, Origins of the Afro Comb situates ancient Egypt firmly within its African context, presenting a refreshing and thought-provoking narrative that stands out from its contemporaries. Interpretation panels refer to ancient Egypt as Kemet, the ancient Egyptian name for Egypt and a term which Dr Ashton explains has “become associated with placing Egypt in its African cultural context”.

Ancient Egypt and Sudan section.

Ancient Egypt and Sudan section.

The ancient Egypt and Sudan section is arranged in chronological order, displaying examples from Predynastic to Islamic Egypt with corresponding text panels. This simple yet effective style of typology arrangement draws attention to interesting patterns and trends in the archaeological record, such as the gap in evidence from the Old Kingdom and the influence of outside cultures and settlement in design and the width of teeth, indicating changes in hair type or length. As with the rest of the exhibition the Egyptian and Sudanese collections are supported by a range of contextualising objects from each period, such as statuary depicting hairstyles, to help emphasise the human element and social and cultural dynamics of these objects.

To compliment this style of display Afro Comb presents an interesting homage to Sir Flinders Petrie’s own typology of ancient hair combs made in 1927, which remains the only published typology of its kind. Copies of plates from Petrie’s publication, artworks in their own right, form the backdrop to this thematic sub-section that works to historically centre the exhibition and its aims.

World map of combs.

World map of combs.

As ancient and Islamic Egypt feeds into 20th century Africa the objects are allowed to speak for themselves and the visitor can actively engage in interpretation by seeking similarities and differences in the group. The beauty of this exhibition lies in its seamless intertwining of archaeological and anthropological narratives – using one object to access and connect human stories across time and geographical location. This exhibition presents a valuable collaboration between the Fitzwilliam Museum and Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, demonstrating the benefits of working with partner collections, sharing and voicing multi-disciplinary expertise.

The Fitzwilliam Museum has once again led the way with community engagement and outreach, working with a Community Committee in devising the exhibition, and advising on content and display. It is often difficult to reflect shared authorship in display but the exhibition takes steps to show how vital participation is. Visitors are encouraged to take and share photographs of the exhibition, their own combs and hairstyles via Instagram, a space is provided for sharing comments and memories at the end of the exhibition, as well as audio-visual stations to show interviews and archive footage, and allow visitors the opportunity to create alternate labels for objects with their own interpretations. This kind of participation ensures the exhibition remains relevant and relatable, and reflects more accurately the communities it aims to represent.

The importance of this relationship can be seen just within the entrance of the exhibition where the focus rests on a single pedestal display case showing an animal bone comb from Abydos (c.3500 BCE) alongside a 20th century example in plastic. The direct comparison made between these two combs and the use of cultural motifs on the handles led directly to the development of the exhibition and so beautifully sets the scene for a stunning and sophisticated exhibition that explores the depths of our relationship and fascination with everyday objects.


4 thoughts on “Origins of the Afro Comb: 6,000 Years of Culture, Politics and Identity, the Fitzwilliam Museum.

  1. Pingback: Origins of the Afro Comb: 6,000 Years of Culture, Politics and Identity, the Fitzwilliam Museum. | Holism in Ancient Egypt & Greece

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