We interrupt historic house museum week to bring you an important message. For the first and maybe only time ThisBelongsinaMuseum has a guest writer. Even though I once briefly mentioned this place in the early days of the blog, Chicago artist and writer Dmitry Samarov was nice enough to share his personal visit with us. If you’re not familiar with Dmitry, please check out his artwork, his book, and even his tumblr. I highly recommend them all. Enjoy.
Driving down an utterly generic commercial road past McDonald’s, car dealerships, office buildings and such didn’t prepare me in any way for where we’d end up. My girlfriend, Shay, had been talking about the place for months, and then, at 9:30am on a Monday morning, there we were. Leila’s Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri. A nondescript building with an empty lot, betraying no clue of what was behind its locked doors. The museum is actually not open on Mondays but we’d made an appointment. As the minutes crawled by though it looked like there would be no hair museum for us this day. We gave up around 10:15 and hit the road.
Did Leila forget about us? Did we get the time mixed up somehow? Whatever the case, when we were about 25 miles away and I was telling her that we’d definitely visit another time, Shay got a text message from her office back home: “The Hair Museum is looking for you.” Seconds later there was a call from Leila herself, saying she could meet us at 11:30. We got off at the next exit and sped back to Independence.
Leila Cohoon is a small woman with perfectly-set platinum hair and many pieces of eye-catching jewelry. She unlocks the doors of her museum and lets us in. Inside is a small reception area hung nearly floor to ceiling with antique shadowbox frames. In each frame are wreaths, decorations, landscapes, and every other sort of design one could dream of. All are made of hair.
Leila has traced the art of hairwork back to at least the 1500s but believes it goes back much earlier. Not only has she collected hair decorations and jewelry for over 40 years but she has also managed to learn many of the arthritis-inducing techniques necessary to complete these creations. Flowers, figures, and animals, all made of knots and stitches of multicolored tresses. She points out each skill she’s mastered as we make our way around her lobby. She says she knows 30 techniques while 5 others have thus far eluded her. She leaves no doubt by her tone that it’s only a matter of time until she knows them all. We continue into the back room. Every square inch of wall space is spoken for. In the middle of the room glass cases hold rings, necklaces, brooches, and reliquaries, all decorated with human or animal hair.
Leila tells us about the history of many of her prized possessions. Some were made to memorialize a loved one’s passing, others to celebrate impending nuptials, while still others’ intent is a complete mystery. She has traveled the world to find items for her museum and her single-minded passion for the subject of hairwork is fairly awe-inspiring. Here is a person who has taken an unusual interest and turned it into a life’s work.
Leila tells us she won’t give her collection to the Smithsonian—though they keep asking—because she wants to make sure that people can easily see her treasures. She doesn’t want them shut away in some climate-controlled safe forever. She’s also writing a book about the history of hairwork. In the meantime, she’ll teach you those 30 techniques if you sign up for one of her classes.
Shay is already planning her trip back to Missouri.