Specimens of Hair: The curious collection of Peter A. Browne

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‘Curious’ is a well-chosen adjective here, for the (surely unparalleled) collection of hair (or ‘pile’) assembled from human subjects and from the wider mammal world by Peter Browne (1782–1860) evokes many of the reactions of fascination and squeamishness that would have been common in the cabinets of early collectors, while like them Browne strove to contrive a system by which his specimens could be articulated in a meaningful way and from which universal truths could be distilled.

Browne’s ambitious project to form a national collection of pile had its origin in an interest in sheep’s wool: he developed conventions for classifying fleeces according to their woolliness or hairiness – still a useful guide today.