Building off of last week's post, which featured a genipa fruit in a 17th century museum, this week I thought I would share some examples that I've come across of henna in museums around the world. Feel free to add in the comments: have you ever come across henna in a museum? As a student of Museum Studies, I've always been fascinated by combining two of my interests, and I would love to plan a museum exhibit on henna around the world... One day! What would you put in a museum exhibit on henna?
Of course, there are many examples of art depicting henna in museums around the world (for some examples previously examined in the blog, see here, here, and here), but we are not going to attempt to survey this in this brief post. Another category that we could put in our hypothetical henna exhibit are what might be termed henna paraphernalia, or objects related to henna or used during henna application.
|Henna gourd from West Africa, Smithsonian Museum of African Art|
But what about actual henna? Believe it or not, that too can be found in the museum! In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many museums in Europe and North America acquired large ethnographic collections from travellers who explored in the Americas, Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. Unfortunately, racism, stereotypes, and colonial understandings of culture meant that the people and communities who created these objects were not always treated with respect, and many of these objects were acquired under unethical circumstances, not to mention how they were displayed and catalogued! This is in fact still a big problem for museum professionals today... But let's get back to henna!
Largely as a part of this collecting history, speciments of henna powder and leaves are to be found in museums around the world — it was often collected along with other items of local clothing, cosmetics, and jewellery. Here are a few examples of henna that I've seen myself or have been able to find online, thanks to recent initiatives in having museums digitize their collections.
|Body adornment, including henna, at the Pitt Rivers Museum.|
The PRM, like a number of other ethnography museums, has chosen to mix artifacts together from different places according to theme, and often adds contemporary objects that relate to the subject... Although we might question the wisdom (and safety) of having Rani cones in a museum display about henna (you can read about this case here).
Elsewhere in the PRM they have two other examples of henna powder, both collected by Henry Balfour (1863-1939), first curator of the PRM, and donated in 1898. One was purchased in the market of Tizi Ouzou, a small Kabyle town in northern Algeria; the other in Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina).
|Henna from Algeria (above) and Bosnia (below), PRM, 1898.|
|Henna box, Iran, ca. 1870-1920.|
|Henna powder and leaves, Somalia, 1935, in the British Museum.|
As testimony to that, there's even henna in the National Museum of American History! Dyeing hair with henna enjoyed a vogue in the 1920s and 1930s thanks to a combination of the popularity of 'Oriental' aesthetics, famous stars who dyed their henna with henna like Clara Bow, and newly available imported henna products, mostly from Egypt or Turkey. The Smithsonian has several examples of imported henna marketing aimed at Americans, such as this tin of Egyptian henna powder from 1931, packaged and marketed by the Purepac Pharmaceutical Corporation in New York.
|Purepac Henna Powder, Smithsonian Museum of American History|