Masks at the Pitt Rivers Museum

The Pitt Rivers Museum has a range of masks from diverse ethnic communities including those in Africa, North America and Papua New Guinea, as well as theatre masks from Japan, Korea, Borneo and Tibet.

Haida maskNowadays people in the Western industrialized countries encounter masks in completely different contexts to those for which the masks on display in the Pitt Rivers Museum were originally designed. Masks fulfil their purposes in diverse situations of life, as means of protection: such as those worn by surgeons, welders or ice-hockey players; in times of war by soldiers; as means of disguise, as worn by burglers, terrorists or participants in a mask-ball; we could even think about make-up as a form of masking. Masks are not always simply hollow figures of human, or animal, heads worn on the face, but can also be worn on the hips or the neck as status symbols, like the so-called pendant masks from the African Kingdom of Benin. They might also be worn on the head with a costume attached to it like some of the dance-masks from New Guinea, where the actual head of the mask, often crowned by an enormous superstructure, is sitting on top of the dancer's head. Other masks were not worn but instead put on display, like some of the Malanggan masks of New Ireland

The act of masking is not simply about disguise but is the creation of a different person altogether. An actor in ancient Greek, Roman or traditional Japanese theatre would strive to bring the mask he was wearing to life and he would act in the way that the character he was representing prescribed him to do. To a certain extent this is also true of some of the African, North American or Melanesian masks in the Museum. But here the context and meaning of masked performance is a different one. Whereas in western tradition masks are meant to be part of an entertainment, in many parts of the world the mask symbolizes an ancestor or other spirit that has come back to life with the help of the masker, who in a way lends his body to the spirit so that it is the spirit performing through the dancer and not the other way round. Quite often the mask is regarded as a very powerful thing that might even have become too powerful through a single performance to ever be worn or touched again without causing harm. In many societies masks are discarded or destroyed after they have been used once. It might even be considered a taboo, something so sacred or powerful, or both, that nobody is allowed to see it and live, or at least remain unpunished.

The occasions for masked performances are closely linked to religious rituals and initiation ceremonies and not merely intended to be entertaining. What is more is that mask-making, understanding their function and also learning how to perform with them is very often part of the socialisation and initiation processes of all the young people (boys only in most societies) of a community as opposed to the theatre or our modern day carnivals where wearing a mask may be part of an actor's character or simply a matter of individual preferences.

How then are we to fully grasp the meaning of such an object if we have to view it not at all in its original context but in one that is completely new and alien altogether to the object in question. Fortunately, the objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum are presented as either part of a specific geographically defined region, or, and this is by far more often the case and indeed one of the principles by which the collection is displayed, they are grouped together with other objects of the same kind. Nevertheless they are still stripped of the paraphernalia vital for an understanding of its former purpose as this, unfortunately but understandable, is the way the objects were first acquired

Further information

Irvine, Gregory (1994) "Japanese Masks: Ritual and Drama". In: Mack, John (ed.) (1994) Masks. The Art of Expression. London: British Museum Press. pp.130-150.

King, J.Ch. (1994) "Masks from the Northwest Coast of North America". In: Mack, John (ed.) (1994) Masks. The Art of Expression. London: British Museum Press. pp.106-130

Lommel, Andreas (1970; 1972 transl.) Masks. Their Meaning and Function. London: Paul Elek.

Mack, John (1994) "Introduction: About Face". In: Mack, John (ed.) (1994) Masks. The Art of Expression. London: British Museum Press. pp. 8-32.

Starzecka, Dorotea Czarkowska (1994) "Masks in Oceania". In: Mack, John (ed.)(1994) Masks. The Art of Expression. London: British Museum Press. pp. 56-82.

Waley, Arthur (1921; 1965 4th impr.) The No Plays of Japan. [With letters by Oswald Sickert] London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.