In early November, I received an event notification in my email: “Presidential Hair: A Close Shave with History.” Speaker Robert McCracken Peck, Academy Curator of Art and Artifacts and Senior Fellow, was going to provide insight into the hair collection of Peter A. Browne, the subject of his book Specimens of Hair: The Curious Collection of Peter A. Browne. I couldn’t click fast enough to RSVP.A lawyer, Browne became interested in wool and fur, tracking the differences between animals and species across various geographic locales. The next step was human hair. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Browne actively collected human hair samples, including 13 of the first US presidents, famous authors like James Fenimore Cooper, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Browne devoted his life to this project. Before DNA, Browne knew hair was a significant indicator of our identity and that through hair, we could know more about ourselves, as individuals, in addition to the human species. His immense collection, however, would have been tossed in the 1970s had it not been for Peck who stumbled upon the scrapbooks in the hallway of the Academy bound for the trash.
Peck’s book, Specimens of Hair, accounts for the collection through Rosamond Purcell’s stunning photographs and Peck’s rich text. Full of history and analysis, the book is more than just a glance into what many might consider a frivolous oddity, something to ogle and judge. Peck makes the irrefutable case of Browne’s collection being emblematic of 19th-century science, curiosity, and the adventurous spirit of scientific exploration. A week after his talk, Peck was gracious enough to host me in his office at the Academy of Natural Sciences where we discussed Browne’s mission, science literacy and advocacy, and the implications of collecting hair samples. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For a long time the cultural war over evolution was relegated to courtrooms and classrooms. But increasingly the battle is being waged on an unexpected front — the natural history museum. Traditional museums continue with their business of explaining evolution, but have become a bit more explicit in their support of the theory than in the past. After putting its Darwin exhibit on the road to Boston, New York’s American Museum of Natural History opened a new Hall of Human Origins in April. The Texas Memorial Museum will soon be the latest home of the traveling “Explore Evolution” exhibit. And in Chicago, the Field Museum’s “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries” runs through September, “Darwin” until January. Meanwhile, this year also saw the opening of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Among other claims, the museum proffers that the Earth is just 6,000 years old, and that dinosaurs walked with humans.
It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could ‘a’ laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done.
—Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Were we made, or did we just happen? Huckleberry Finn and his traveling companion Jim drew upon the evidence they saw in the sky above them, and the world around them, arriving at a mutual conclusion on the nature of the universe…. More…