October 2012
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Month October 2012

Masks of the History Museum

While I was still in New York I had the pleasure of running through the American Natural History Museum looking at some of the beautiful masks tucked away in their collections. It’s an old fashioned museum in a lot of ways, and masks of the are displayed with almost no context, like butterflies on a pin-board. In one particularly bad display of Pacific Island masks one card read, “New Ireland.” Well, I thought, there is a New Ireland.


Today the low pile carpet and oak and glass cabinets make the Hall of the Northwest Coast Indians pretty shabby and unwelcoming but in his book The Way of the Masks, Claude Levi-Strauss described his experience of the hall with the first stanza of Charles Baudelaire’s poem Correspondences:

Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.

Taken as objects behind glass the masks can seem meaningless, crude and lifeless. Their cards are unhelpful to the point of silliness. They all seem to read along the lines of: wooden mask, shaman’s mask, a mask is a pretend face etc. But with a little imagination and curiosity they start to come alive. Piercing stares, flapping, lolling tongues. Some even have mechanisms–hinges and pulleys–that can tear apart one face to reveal a face underneath. Not to mention the human bodies that must have played these masks, breathing through them and embodying every distorted and extreme detail.  Whoo!