Saturday, July 29, 2017

From My Files 2: Henna in the Museum

From My Files, week 2! Let's keep the momentum going.

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 herehere, 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
For example, in this post I have an example of a zunguru, or calabash gourd filled with henna paste, used in West Africa to cover the arms with henna; this post has an example of a sang-e ḥanā, "henna stone" or stool to rest one's feet on after they've been hennaed, which was common in Persia and the Ottoman Empire; and this post shows a Jewish henna cloth, known as pishandaz-e ḥana, from Afghanistan.

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.
In this case at the Pitt Rivers Museum, you can see a number of objects relating to henna (from right to left): a henna gourd from West Africa and a photograph illustrating it, a henna stool from Iran, henna powder and leaves collected in Somalia, saltpetre and tamarind "for mixing with henna to make dye for staining the hands and feet" collected in Nigeria in 1931, and some contemporary examples of henna books and Rani cones from India. 

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.
The British Museum also has a small sample of henna powder and henna leaves, collected in Somalia in the 1930s, and the Science Museum in London has a beautiful lacquered box filled with henna leaves, acquired by an agent of Henry Wellcome's in Iran in the early 20th century. And as I described in this blogpost, the National Museum of Lithuania has a sample of henna powder from the Crimean Karaite community, acquired in 1930 from Seraya Szapszal

Henna powder and leaves, Somalia, 1935, in the British Museum.
You might notice that these locations are not necessarily the first places people associate with henna today: Algeria, Bosnia, Somalia, Crimea, Nigeria... I think this is a great illustration of a point I have made on this blog before: the associations we have with henna today (e.g. that henna comes from India or Pakistan) are not the same as those of the past. Even only seventy-five years ago, if you asked an American or Brit about henna they would have associated it primarily with North Africa, Egypt, Persia, or the Ottoman Empire.

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
So that's the scoop on henna in museums, at least so far. If you've ever come across other examples, I'd love to hear about them in the comments! Or if you have ideas for what you'd want to see in a museum exhibit on henna, let me know... And of course, if you're a museum curator or director and you want to get in touch with me — I'm waiting for your call. That's a wrap for this week's post... 2 down, 10 more to go!

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