Changing Face: masks from The British Museum

15 September – 5 December 2002

Exhibition in Gallery 4

Masking is a universal phenomenon, but the significance of masks varies greatly from country to country. Changing Face explores some of the key differences in the uses masks have had in diverse cultures and periods.

Eleven masks have been selected from across the collections of The British Museum allowing, for the first time, comparison between examples from Ancient Egypt, South America, Africa, Europe and Oceania.

A mask is conventionally something to hide behind for amusement, deception or protection; it transforms the wearer by providing a new appearance. But in Changing Face there are masks that covered the whole head as well as the face, and there is one that added nearly a metre to the wearer’s height. There are masks worn by the living and others worn by the dead in order to render them divine; masks that were used for mere entertainment and others that played a fundamental role in ritual. There is a mask that gave animal-like qualities to human beings and another which gave human qualities to vegetables. There are also some masks in the exhibition which were never meant to be worn at all, like the death mask of Oliver Cromwell.

Together, the masks chosen for Changing Face suggest some of the complexity behind masking and masks. But the exhibition also illustrates the widely differing ways the human face has been represented - the generic or specific, abstract or realistic, the idealised and the absurd - in different media that include cast wax and bronze, carved stone and wood, gilded plaster and basketry. Changing Face therefore raises questions about how we portray ourselves and how we chose to reveal or conceal our own identities.

This exhibition is fourth in the series of collaborations between The British Museum and the Henry Moore Institute and will tour to subsequent venues after Leeds as part of The British Museum’s national touring programme.

Venue details

Venue address

Henry Moore Institute
The Headrow
United Kingdom
T: 0113 246 7467

Opening times

Galleries: Tuesday to Sunday, 10am - 5pm

Research Library: Monday to Friday, 10am - 5pm
Archive of Sculptors' Papers: Tuesday to Friday, by prior appointment

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