Masks in our collections

Traditionally masks have been used worldwide to cover the face for many reasons – ceremonial, as a disguise, to protect and simply to entertain.

Thousands of years ago, masks were worn during rite ceremonies to ward off evil spirits. It is also thought that in prehistoric times men wore animal-like masks to disguise themselves when hunting.

In our vast and varied collections, we've got a number of masks - from death masks to dancing masks. Here's our pick of the best and where you can visit them for yourself:

    Death mask of Dame Ellen Terry

    A death mask was created after someone had died for use as a memento or for the later construction of a portrait. A cast of the face was made out of wax or plaster which was then filled with a metal such as pewter. The weight of the plaster cast on the face sometimes caused it to become slightly distorted and this can sometimes be identified in a portrait created in this way. Before the invention of photography masks were sometimes made to identify an unknown corpse.

    Dame Ellen Terry died at Smallhythe Place in 1928 at the age of 81. Her death mask was made the following day by sculptresses Margaret Winser and Kim Allen. Three copies were made in different materials: plaster of Paris, muslin and wax. In 1933 a mask was given to the Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon by Edith Craig, and in 1949 the third mask was donated to the National Portrait Gallery in London by an artist and friend of the family.

    Rangda face mask

    This face mask from Bali depicts the mythological ‘Rangda’ (Old Javanese for ‘widow’), the demon Queen of Leyak. She is a harsh, child-eating witch with stiff extended arms and vibrating fingers which display hairy knuckles and six-inch long fingernails. With her loud, rasping voice and wild and erratic gestures, she leads an army of witches against the forces of good (Barong). The mask and costume is worn in traditional Barong dances which are still performed in Bali and depict the battle between good and evil.

    Telek Muani Topeng mask

    The Balinese Telek masks, Telek Muani (male) and Telek Luh, (female), are spiritual beings and the most important masks in the country. In masked dances in Bali, known as Topeng, the Telek characters form are part of the following of the Barong Ket, the Lion King of the Jungle, and a good spirit. Barong Ket is also the enemy of Rangda (see above).

    This painted wooden mask of Telek Muani is on show at Snowshill Manor, and its sly smile and intense gaze indicate its demonic origins. In Balinese theatre, the Telek is now rarely seen.

    Benin hip mask

    This bronze hip mask depicting a leopard and on show at Snowshill Hill Manor originates from the ancient kingdom of Benin in Nigeria; the leopard is the Beninese symbol of royal power. Masks were given by the kings of Benin to their high-ranking officers who wore them tied to their left hips. One of the greatest defining periods of the historic Kingdom of Benin, founded in the 14th century, was the art of casting which reached a high point in its civilisation.

    Gelede dance mask

    Gelede masks are worn by male dancers of the Yoruba people of south-western Nigeria during the Gelede festival. This takes place between March and May, the beginning of a new agricultural season, and celebrates the community’s mothers, elderly women and female ancestors. The Yorubas believe that women possess the power to control life and death, not only in humans, but also in the fertility of crops.

    They're really a type of headdress, worn on the top of the head, to which is attached a cloth veil which covers the wearer’s face. The headdress from Snowshill Manor is carved from wood in the form of a female human and topped with symbols such as a snakes, birds and reptiles. The snake on this mask symbolises feminine qualities of calmness, patience and power.

    Noh theatre mask

    Noh (‘skill or talent’ in Sino-Japanese), is a form of classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. The characters in Noh theatre are all male and the performances are slow and poetic with the actor wearing rich, heavy costumes. The performances can last for several hours and because the masks are worn throughout, it is important that they are carved from very light wood such as Japanese cypress. Usually the masks depict characters such as demons, spirits and male and female humans.

    Snowshill Manor has this great example of a theatre mask.

    Naga Raksha mask

    The ancient Naga tribe of Sri Lanka (c.6th century BC–c.3rd century AD) were snake worshippers in pre-Buddhist days. Kolam is a traditional dance drama of rural Sri Lanka where the dancers wear masks and costumes and perform mime and dance to depict rural village life and stories from Hindu mythology. Part of the Kolam ritual are dances where the performers wear Raksha masks, a tribute to Rakshashas, a mythological being who could assume different forms.

    In one of the dances, Naga Raksha masks are worn. The cobras on this mask, on display at 2 Willow Road, coil to form a crown around its head and two emerge from its nostrils. They represent the evil power of snake poison that can destroy human and animal life. The dance is performed in the belief evil will be warded off.

    Charlie Chaplin advertising mask

    The Wood Milne Rubber Company was established in 1896 by T.H. Roberts of Leyland, Preston, Lancashire. As well as the Golden Hill Lane factory in Leyland there were also two branches in London. Products manufactured included rubber shoe heels, car and motorcycle tyres, shoeshine products, golf balls, foot pumps and other rubber goods. The business was taken over by an American company which in 1934 became the British Tyre and Rubber Co.

    This Charlie Chaplin mask on display at The Museum of Childhood, Sudbury Manor, may have been worn by an employee to advertise the company or given away to customers.

    Face mask of a suit of Samurai armour

    Several suits of Samurai armour are on display at Snowshill Manor. The Samurai, or bushi, were an aristocratic Japanese warrior class between the 11th and 19th centuries. The soldiers used a variety of weapons such as bows and arrows, guns and spears, but their main weapon was the sword. They lived by an ethical code of loyalty to their masters, self-discipline and respectful behaviour.

    Chinese Dragon mask

    This painted papier mâché mask appears to be a Chinese Dragon but details are sparse. Its nose is a brass stud and its mouth-piece hangs from a piece of wicker. It is on display at 2 Willow Road.