It’s that time of year when the leaves are starting to change color and those in the Northwest are rudely reminded to swap their sandals for rain boots by the sudden shift in weather. It is the month of October and in addition to the change in seasons, the month also marks the celebration of Halloween. Halloween is an opportunity to take on a different persona, and is the only time of year where it is socially acceptable to walk around wearing a mask.
In many cultures around the globe, wearing a mask is far more meaningful than dressing up and scaring others. Masks have been used for spiritual expression, to show respect to ancestors, and to communicate status. Their uses have proved valuable even in the modern world, where there are surgical masks and facemasks attached to football helmets. Masks are one of the oldest accessories that have been in use throughout the course of humanity.
The Museum of Natural and Cultural History currently has an exhibit showcasing masks from parts of the globe that explain their historical significance and relation to today’s culture. The masks on display are a handful from the Museum’s anthropological collection, where hundreds of them are stored in their in-house vault. The masks showcased are from North America, West Africa, and Oceania. They vary in material based on the parts of the world that they were made. For example, North American masks are made of wood and feathers, while masks from Oceania are made of clay, grass, and cowry shells. African masks are made of netting, wood, and bronze. Masks were commonly used to tell stories. The Bear (pictured above), a mask made by the Hamat’sa society from the North West Coast, was used to tell the story of a young man possessed by a dreaded spirit. While some were made for tribal dances, others were made for food. Masks were used to cover yams to convey the spirit of ancestors in Papua New Guinea.
The rich history of masks can give a new meaning and significance to Halloween and might even be a source of inspiration for a costume. The exhibit is on display until December 31st. For those who can’t wait to dress up for Halloween, the Museum is having a Masquerade Family Day October 22nd where there will be live music, a costume parade, and an opportunity to decorate a mask.