New hair-raising exhibition challenges its visitors to brush up on their follicles

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Each adult has about 150,000, they are collectively capable of carrying the weight of two African elephants, we lose them at a rate of about 120 a day and, to top it all, they are dead.

Each adult has about 150,000, they are collectively capable of carrying the weight of two African elephants, we lose them at a rate of about 120 a day and, to top it all, they are dead.

The secrets of hair are to be unravelled in a new exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London. From the biology of the pilus and the science used to stop it falling out, to the culture of hair and its influences across the globe, the exhibition gives visitors a comprehensive picture.

"People are very preoccupied with how their hair looks, but we really wanted to show the biological and cultural implications behind it," said Emma Freeman, science communicator and exhibition developer at the museum. "There is a big impact in terms of different beliefs, religions and cultures, as well as in connection with the biology and science."

The exhibition, designed by L'Oréal and La Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie in Paris, aims to shed light on the revealing nature of a single strand of hair, which scientists can use to explore race, diet, lifestyle and behaviour of its owner.

Visitors to the exhibition are bombarded with hair facts. Children lose an average of 90 hairs a day, compared to 120 a day in later life, while the word shampoo comes from the Hindi "chmpn", meaning to massage or knead. Hair is the second fastest growing tissue in the body after marrow, with an average daily growth of up to 0.5mm, and £4bn a year is spent on razors to get rid of it.

A large, red chair with a screen attached enables visitors to examine their hairs magnified 1,000 times, shedding light on the health of the hair as well as whether or not it has been dyed. Amid scientific displays deconstructing individual hairs, there is also a film showing the growth of curly, frizzy and straight hair.

While one section demonstrates how grey hair does not exist but is an absence of pigment, another enables visitors to try a range of hairstyles from across the world and throughout history with the aid of computer-generated images.

Bruno Bernard, head of the Hair Biology Group in Clichy, France, and one of only 300 specialist hair researchers in the world, described how the "language of hair" was one of universal concern.

"Nobody knows anything about their hair although everyone is concerned by it, particularly in connection with losing it or turning grey," he said.

"This exhibition was borne from this paradox. It is important to understand that it can change depending on your culture and history and circumstances."

Dr Bernard also offered a grain of hope to generations of follicularly challenged men. Referring to the search for a solution to balding, he added: "We know there are several reasons that hair falls out, from the hormonal to the vascular. The problem at present is that the solutions presented tend to help only certain types of balding, so they have an overall low rate of success. But I have real hopes that we will find an association of molecules that will be sufficient to cure everybody."

In terms of the evolution of mammals, the exhibition also demonstrates how mankind has slowly but definitively differentiated itself from other primates.

Christophe Soligo, a researcher in human origins and primate evolution at the Natural History Museum, said: "In terms of human evolution, it's not so much the hair we have as the hair we have lost. It's an essential characteristic that differentiates humans from our closest relatives. Hair is generally overlooked in terms of studies of evolution. It is still not known when man began to lose his fur and was left with a head of hair.

"It could be connected to the first use of fire, or recent studies have used the introduction of body lice and skin pigment to try to determine when it happened. It is a particularly interesting area to examine because it is not something that can be preserved, like fossils."

Hair - The Exhibition opens on Saturday and runs until 26 September