sensory, material, & digital anthropology

A Tale of Two Wigs: An Object Biography Case Study


A glass dome jar sits on a small, wooden stand in the window diagonally opposite the entrance to Magdalen College’s Old Library at the University of Oxford. Inside the jar sits a round object about 30 centimeters in diameter; it looks like something between a concrete cast of a brain and a fossilized sponge. It is, in fact, the petrified wig of Dr. Martin Routh, whose long college career rose from Demy to the position of College President in 1791 until his death in 1854. Routh is shown wearing a wig in an early daguerreotype image belonging to the college.


Illustrations of Routh’s petrified wig under a bell jar in Magdalen College’s Old Library (right) and of Routh’s wig on display in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (left, accession number: 1888.28.25.1 and stand for wig box 1888.28.25.3).

Figure 1: Illustrations of Routh’s petrified wig under a bell jar in Magdalen College’s Old Library (right) and of Routh’s wig on display in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (left, accession number: 1888.28.25.1 and stand for wig box 1888.28.25.3).


Routh’s persistence to don a wig as everyday wear well into the nineteenth-century – by which time they ceased to be the fashionable statement of his youth – means the wig became a defining characteristic of Routh (Middleton, 1936; 1938; Vince, 2009). Hence, when Routh died while in position at 99 years old, Charles Daubney, also a Fellow at Magdalen, made the decision to preserve one of his horsehair wigs by its emersion into mineral rich waters at Matlock to create a more permanent memorial (Roberts and Shephard, 2008:61). This case study of Routh’s wig, and another of his wigs held in the Pitt Rivers Museum (Figure 1), will be discussed to demonstrate how objects are social things within a wider, complex network of human relationships and other objects, by drawing on Appadurai’s (1986) and Kopytoff’s (1986) classic texts in The Social Life of Things and more recent texts that address the sociality of objects (Parkin, 1999; Smith, 2008; Miller, 2008; Miller and Parrott, 2009). The stories of the two wigs reveal three overlapping social roles of material culture in society: as mediators of relationships, as having their own social lives, relationships, and biographies, and finally, through their role in helping to create memory.


Wigs as Mediators of Relationships

Things mediate our relationships with each other and these two wigs offer an example for understanding the multiple ways such mediation occurs. Appadurai argued that even though human actors may project meaning onto things “it is the things-in-motion that illuminate their human and social context” and therefore it is the circulation of things in society that needs to be studied methodologically (1986: 5). Routh’s ‘petrified’ wig has not moved that much, remaining in the College Library for over a hundred years. The reduced circulation of the wig means it has a continuous relationship with its location, and by extension, with Routh himself, unlike other objects that have been forcibly divorced from their original social context by third parties (Krmpotich, 2010), or from their geographical context in moments of forced population displacement (Parkin, 1999). Through its lack of circulation the wig continues to mediate the relationship of Routh with the College as people circulate around it within the Old Library; the wig can also act as a mediator between the college and new members due to its implied historical significance. However the role of the wig as a mediator has been disrupted – it is no longer literally embodied by Routh as a wearer as it was in his lifetime. Instead it has become an embodiment of Routh in itself as an extension of his personality, as an example of a Gellian “distributed personhood” discussed further below (Gell, 1998; Smith, 2008). It is this embodiment that allows the wig to fulfill its social mediatory role between members of the college and visitors to the restricted access area of the Old Library.


Another wig of Routh’s is on display in the Body Arts display case of the Lower Gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. This second wig has not undergone ‘petrifying’ treatment and so is more recognizable as a horsehair cleric’s wig. The Pitt Rivers wig mediates relations differently to the Magdalen wig – it is further disembodied from Routh himself and the college he occupied, being used instead as a more general representation of an eighteenth/nineteenth-century wig. The only reference to Routh in the display of the wig is a small photograph of the wig box featuring Routh’s name, on the text label positioned to the left of the object (Figure 2). ). Instead, the wig is used to emphasize the historical social roles of wigs allowing a further understanding of how wigs act as social things now, and in the past. Wig wearing in England took off in the mid-seventeenth-century remaining popular for nearly two hundred years with different styles of wig available corresponding to recognized social statuses. The forms of wigs “offered men choices of role and persona” with Routh’s clerical wig defining him as a position of “dignifying” authority (Vincent 2009:4), befitting of an Oxford University cleric.

 Routh’s wig (1888.28.25.1) within the ‘HAIR’ section of the Body Arts display at the Pitt Rivers Museum (left), and a close up of the wig showing the adjacent label with photographs of wig box (right).

Routh’s wig (1888.28.25.1) within the ‘HAIR’ section of the Body Arts display at the Pitt Rivers Museum (left), and a close up of the wig showing the adjacent label with photographs of wig box (right).

The social lives, relationships and biographies of the wigs

Considering the way the wigs mediate relationships has already revealed aspects of their social lives and objects biographies, following Kopytoff’s (1986) ‘life stages’ or ‘career’ defined by their use and movement over time within different regimes of value in society. Object biographies draw attention to the materiality of things, forcing the consideration of an object as social within wider processes than its current circulation by looking back to origins, processes of making and transformations experienced over time. For example, a full biography of the wig in Magdalen’s Old Library would consider the historical context briefly outlined above, along with its various transformations through washing, mending, curling, and wear on the head of Dr. Routh – and perhaps further back still, to the production of the material of hair as its life as part of a living horse – before its current ‘fossilized’ social role as a memorial on display.


The Pitt Rivers wig may share a similar career to the Magdalen one before the death of Dr Routh and the Magdalen wig’s petrification and display. However, the Pitt River Museum’s database entry for the former lists it as one of a collection of objects previously owned by Rev J. Rigaud and donated to the – then newly opened – Pitt Rivers Museum in 1888 by Miss Rigaud of 160 Walton Street in Oxford. The eclectic group of objects that accompanied the wig included various Chinese artefacts, an incised ostrich egg and an “iron candlestick from Stanton Harcourt made in 1635” to mention just a few recorded in the ‘Additions to Museum’ Notebook entry on page 33, referenced in the database entry []. Further, within the database entry Dr Routh’s name appears as “Rout,” “Roth” and even “Dr Ro…” revealing the potential of objects to loose their status of associated persons or information about their previous social roles and ‘careers’ even within the museum context. A database note from 2006 states that a piece of paper was found in the bottom of the wig box with brown ink stating: “The wig of the late Dr. Routh President of Magdalen College” and in pencil: “Presd. by Rev. J. Rigaud 1886,” confirming the wig, and the previous spellings, as associated with the same Dr. Routh as the Magdalen wig. This information does not reveal how the wig became the property of Rev. Rigaud. Therefore, an object’s relationship to other objects, including hand written notes, accompanying documentation and labels can reveal more about its social life and biography, but can also be limited in the information they are able to convey.


Further, just as Miller (2008) has argued that the material accumulations in our houses can reveal the relationships in our lives, so can the material accumulation in the archaeological record reveal something of relationships between places, things, and people in the past. Over 3,500 wig curlers and a wig oven were recently found in an archaeological dig at Magdalen College New Library on a site where a barbershop has been historically documented. Wine bottles were also discovered with a College Common Room date stamp of 1769 linking the college fellows, and possibly Routh and his wigs, to the site through connections between material things (Oxford Archaeology, awaiting publication; Oxford Mail, 6th November 2013). Similar wig curlers are displayed near the wig in the Pitt Rivers display (shown in the bottom right corner of Figure 2).


The Social Role of Objects in Memory

Objects that circulate as social things in society vary in their durability but many objects outlive human lives, and thus have the potential to become heirlooms or connections to the past through their biographies. Parkin describes how objects can become “private mementoes,” retained for as long as possible due to their acquired status as a heirloom-like “depository of sentimental and cultural knowledge”  (1999:317). Although Parkin was writing about extreme circumstances of forced human displacement, his observations can be applied to the social lives of the wigs with the Magdalen wig seen as a “private memento” shared with visitors while the Pitt Rivers wig can be seen as being an exemplifier of a depository of cultural knowledge in its most generalizing form through the museum display.


Daubeny’s petrification of Routh’s wig reveals attempts to fix an organic matter (horsehair) into a more durable material for longevity, increasing its potential value as an heirloom. However, heirlooms are unstable in their identity, depending on relationships between people, and cultural stability. Robert and Sheppard report in their catalogue, Hidden Magdalen, that Daubeny’s actions were also symbolic with the fossilizing treatment meant not only as a monument to his older contemporary Fellow and friend, but also “as a comment and a warning” against Routh’s resistance to change in attempted reforms of Oxford in the 1850s which Daubeny reportedly found frustrating (2008:61).


The conservation of the wig at the Pitt Rivers may have included the application of pesticides and preservative chemicals in the past, but the wig will be cared for today using less invasive, preventative techniques, especially against insect damage due to its organic materials. Its use in the museum is as a collective memorial to times gone by when wigs were worn more generally, rather than just to Routh himself, or specific relationships such as that of Routh and Daubeny, and Routh and the College represented in the petrified wig. This is perhaps not surprising to the history of the Pitt Rivers as a typological museum, and the wigs current social and educational role within a comparative display of Body Arts from around the world. The label accompanying the Pitt Rivers display exemplifies this use of the wig as a generalized memorialization:


Nineteenth-century gentleman’s wig.

At one time each profession used a different shaped wig.

In some parts of the world lawyers and judges continue to wear wigs in the twenty-first century.

An article on the Body Arts website of the Pitt Rivers Museum provides further socio-historical context for the wig on display, including reference to Routh, as well as drawing attention to the continuing social roles of wigs in the present []. The database and website entry reveal how museums often contain more information of objects in their care than what may be possible to display, with many other factors (for example the size of the case, topic of display, and other objects in the collection) that contribute to curatorial decisions on what meanings, memories and social roles to emphasize.


Just as material things can be used to mediate relationships, they can also be used to end them. Miller and Parrott (2009) define the processes of “divestment” and “the economy of relationships” to explain the continual, deliberate filtering and disposal of material things to manage accumulated social relationships over a lifetime. While the filtering of Daubeny’s post-humus relationship with Routh involved the transformation of the wig to manage and represent the remembered relationship, Miss Rigaud’s depositing of the wig in the Museum’s collections could be seen as a form of divestment and disposal as there seems to be little sustaining a continual relationship between the Rigaud’s and Routh through the wig’s current display.


The institutional structure of museums often contributes to loss of social relations between objects and people outside the museum location. Repatriation projects with source communities of human remains and socially significant objects collected as curios and specimens in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century have been described as more about restoring kinship and respect than about political, post-colonial acts (see Krmpotich, 2010: 158). In particular, Krmpotich (2010) highlights how interactions with physical remains can help Haida communities “reconnect” with ancestors, and with an ancestral homeland and a collective cultural identity. Following Carsten’s (2000) ideas of the simultaneous co-production of memory and kinship, Krmpotich explores the social role of objects involved in repatriation and their relationship with “a collectively inherited store of tangible and intangible property including names, songs, and resource and village sites” (2010:163). The performance of objects through associated stories and human relationships reveal remembering as “a form of work, more exactly, service” (Feely-Harnik, 1991:138) with memory therefore understood as a process mediated by objects. Although Routh’s wigs are presently unlikely to become the focus of a repatriation project, such enterprises with other museum collections highlight how material culture fulfils significant roles in the remembrance and mediation of relations, with serious implications for museum practice. As caretakers of significant material culture, museums can also be spaces of positive encounters with things that trigger memories, reinforce social relations and create new relationships.


The potential for identities to be condensed into objects further highlights the blurring of boundaries between objects and persons. As mentioned above, Routh’s wig could be seen as an embodied of Routh himself, partly through its absorption of his sweat and its form molding to his head, but also as the wig formed and constituted Routh as a person; “so great was the impression made upon boyish minds by his awful wig” that it is constantly referenced as a defining characteristic of his identity in accounts from his lifetime, and it is even reported as affecting his interactions with people through its inhibition on his hearing (Middleton 1938: 14,16,18). Weiner (1985) argues how worn textiles have a greater tendency to absorb personhood because of their flexibility and absorptive nature, and Miller also highlights how inherited clothes embody the memories of a person through smell and appearance in one of his London Portraits in The Comfort of Things, where Elia uses her deceased aunt’s clothing to “mediate and transfer substance and emotion” in her memories of her aunt (2008:37).


Both the petrified wig and the daguerreotype (linked to in the opening paragraph) can be considered as social objects in their status as indexical memorials to Routh, through the direct relationship with Routh’s body with the former and the nature of photographic images in the latter. Smith (2008) has used studies of photography within Aboriginal communities to demonstrate how photographs can be incorporated as distributed personhood in societies where social persons are considered dividual rather than as individual social units. Similarly, the petrified wig in particular could be seen as extension of the dividual social person of Routh as he is remembered collectively today through various objects. The use of virtual images of people’s likeness to memorize them has a long tradition in portrait painting before the invention of photography. As far as I am aware, the petrifying of wigs is a more unusual example of preserving the likeness of a person. Several paintings of Routh were made in his lifetime, all of him wearing his wig and are on display in dining hall of Magdalen College and other private college rooms, but interestingly they are mostly disputed in their actual likeness of him (Middleton 1936). Perhaps this is the reason why his wig is still considered a suitable memorial of Routh to extend his personhood into the present, and why it continues to exists and fulfill social role in its current state under glass on display in Magdalen College.




– Appadurai, A. (ed.) 1986. The Social Life of Things. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

– Carsten, J. 2000. ‘”Knowing Where You’ve Come From”: Rupture and Continuities of Time and Kinship in Narratives of Adoption Reunions’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 6 (4): 687-703.

– Gell, A. (1998) Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Claredon Press

– Feely-Harnik, G. (1991) ‘Finding Memories in Madagascar’ in S. Kuchlerr and W. Melion (eds) Images of Memory: On Remembering and Representation. pp. 121-140. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

– Kopytoff, 1986. The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process.  In A. Appadurai, (ed.). The Social Life of Things. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

– Krmpotich, C. 2010. ‘Remembering and Repatriation: The Production of Kinship, Memory and Respect.’ Journal of Material Culture 15: 157-179. <;

– Middleton, R. D. 1936. Magdalen Studies. New York: The Macmillan Company

– Middleton, R. D. 1938. Magdalen Studies. New York: The Macmillan Company

– Miller, Daniel. 2008. The Comfort of Things. Polity Press: Cambridge

– Miller, D., and F. Parrott. 2009. ‘Loss and Material Culture in South London.’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute15: 502-519. <;

– Oxford Mail Online, 6th November 2013 [No author credited]. <>

– Parkin, D. 1999. “Mementoes as transitional objects in human displacement.” The Journal of Material Culture. 4:3 pp. 303-320. <>

– Pitt Rivers Museum Object Database <> and search using accession number 1888.28.25

-Roberts, D. B. and R. Sheppard (eds.) (2008) Hidden Magdalen. Oxford University Press

– Smith, Benjamin R. 2008. ‘Ties that Bind: Photographs, Personhood, and Image Relations in Northeastern Australia’, Visual Anthropology, 21: 4, 327 — 344. <>

– Vincent, S. J. (2009) The Anatomy of Fashion: Dressing the Body from the Renaissance to Today. Berg: Oxford

– Weiner, A. 1985. Inalienable wealth. American Ethnologist 12:210-227


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