Masks are objects worn on the face. They have been used for centuries as a means of protection, anonymity, and entertainment. If you’re interested in collecting some of these historic face coverings, there are a few things you’ll need to know.
What is it about masks that intrigues you? Is it the way that they cloak the person wearing them, or do you find joy in observing the intricate details of cultural masks? The best way to figure out your interests in masks is to observe them. To see masks, you’ll need to visit museums and culture centers.
Museums contain a plethora of masks and brief descriptions about their purpose in history. At historical societies, you can find even more information on particular niches of masks. In Irish cultural centers, you may see Morrigan masks that imitate the powerful goddess’s ability to transform into any being.
African cultural centers are a wonderful place to observe masks, as masks are used in cultural ceremonies and rituals across the continent of Africa. Masks vary widely from one country to another, and even differ from village to village.
The Purpose of Your Collection
Once you’ve discovered your love for masks and what qualities about them draw you in, you’re still not ready to start collecting. You need to decide before you begin collecting what the collection’s purpose will be. Are you interested in having a collection that is worth a lot of money? Is the collecting of masks solely for your viewing pleasure?
For collectors who are focused on monetary value, you need to set your expectations for your collection. Would you like to turn a profit in the near future, or are you looking at this collection as more of a savings fund?
If you attempted to tackle collecting masks without having financial boundaries set, you’re asking for a disaster. Doing so would be like shopping for a home without having a budget in mind. It’s simply unreasonable, and you may fall in love with something that you have absolutely no funds for.
When you view your collection as a cash cow, it changes your perspective of the items you purchase. You’re constantly thinking about the investment and what kind of return you’ll get on the mask or the collection as a whole.
Masks collections that serve no other purpose than to bring joy to their owner are a bit more flexible. You don’t have to continually crunch numbers in your head and turn every viewing of a mask into a financial transaction.
Find Your Thing
Masks are such a broad subject. Their many different uses and purposes throughout history and modern times mean that there are countless masks out there. There’s nothing wrong with loving all masks, but having too many various masks can make your collection appear junky. You want your collection to be cohesive and have a theme.
Having a theme in mind will keep you on track and prevent you from ending up with 1000 completely different masks and having to remember all 1000 origin stories of the masks.
Masks for Protection
Masks meant to protect their wearer from harm are a very interesting topic to base a collection around.
A collection based around this ideal could include masks from ancient Rome that were worn by gladiators to intimidate their challengers, or masks worn by samurais to hide their emotions in battle.
The first mask known to be used to protect the wearer from fumes was also invented in ancient Rome. These masks were made of animal bladders and they were worn across the faces of mine workers to protect them from noxious gases. It’s highly unlikely that you would find such a mask existing today, but a replica of it would be pretty impressive.
Other masks known throughout history to protect their wearers were those affectionately called the Plague Doctor masks. These masks were made of boiled cardboard or leather and featured a long beak protruding from the front. One of these original masks would be worth millions of dollars due to the history they hold.
In World War I, we saw the rise of using chemical warfare. This led to the invention of gas masks. These masks sell for hundreds of dollars on the internet, but the real value in them is how many lives were saved by their implementation. These early prototypes led to the amazing progress in the field of personal protective equipment.
Masks for Entertainment
Masks have provided entertainment for humans for centuries. Masquerade masks served as a fashion statement in Venetian society at parties during the 16th century. These grand balls hosted during the Renaissance era brought forth dancing and socializing with a twist. Guests were able to conceal or reveal as much of their identity as they wanted.
Masquerade masks could be made from fabric or composed of sturdier materials such as clay. Bauta masks were popular among men of the period as they were full-face masks that showcased masculine features such as a strong jawline. They were even worn by women.
Moreta masks were also full-face covers, but they were pitch black in color. These masks were based on feminine features such as a rounded face and pointed nose with wide eye holes.
Masks have been used in countless theater productions across the globe. The most widely known masks are those of comedy and tragedy.
In ancient Greece, characters who had a happy disposition and would get their happily ever after wore the mask of comedy. These masks were constructed to portray a smiling face with raised eyebrows. Characters who were sullen or the antagonist of the play would wear the mask of tragedy. The mask of tragedy featured a frowning face with furrowed eyebrows.
The use of these masks made it easier for the crowd to discern the actor’s emotions. This was way before you had jumbotrons displaying every detail for fans seated in the back of the arena.
When the Globe opened in 1599, these masks were a huge part of Shakespeare’s productions. Performances of Macbeth, The Comedy of Errors, and Romeo and Juliet often utilized masks to easily portray the character’s feelings during each act.
In Japan, masks are an integral part of Noh Theater. Noh plays don’t have many characters, and the masks allow the actors to hide themselves. In Noh, actors are not meant to make a grandstand or be the star of the production. They are expected to integrate themselves into their roles. The masks allow the actor to remove their personality and features from the play and act according to their characters.
There are 50 to 60 categories of masks in Noh and each individual mask is used to represent a character’s age, sex, and role in the play. Supernatural beings have masks that are in direct contrast to the mask worn to signify an adult male in the story.
Across the globe, there are many different cultures. Nearly every culture known to man has used masks in some form of ritual or cultural celebration.
The use of masks for rituals is widely associated with the continent of Africa. These masks can be used to resemble gods, animals, or people. Tribal dances are often performed while wearing or carrying around masks.
The culture of Melanesia is focused on ancestral practices. The use of masks helps to bring forth the spirits of the ancestors to guide the current inhabitants of their land.
Native American tribes of North America, such as the Iroquois, carve healing masks from living trees to ease the ailments of the wearer. These masks can take many forms depending on what they are meant to heal.
Every culture that utilizes masks in rituals and ceremonies has a rich history. If the cultural side of masks interests you, don’t think that you are limited to just your own culture. Learning about your own culture can be amazing and insightful, but branching out to learn about a different culture’s application of masks can broaden your horizons. Keep in mind that you should always be respectful of someone else’s culture.
We all have different beliefs and values, and you shouldn’t belittle a culture for their beliefs and practices.
How to Collect
With applicable financial boundaries in place and your heart set on a particular subset of masks, it’s time to start collecting. The most popular place for buying and selling masks is the Internet. When purchasing masks online, be wary of the seller. They’re not your friend. They don’t owe you any special favors, and it is your responsibility as a collector to do your research.
If you see an “authentic” Plague Doctor mask for sale on the Internet, use your good judgement. High-quality leathers were not commonplace at the time, and even under perfect storage conditions, the mask would begin to age over time. If the item pictured is pristine and made of high-grade leather, turn away. It is not authentic.
To collect cultural masks, your best bet is to attend cultural festivals. These festivals often have market booths where masks are sold and traded. You may have to travel to other countries to obtain specific cultural masks, but that is part of the adventure of collecting.