Thursday, 31 March 2016

Material Assessment and Significance of a Sowei Mask

The object is a wood and raffia helmet mask (Sowei) from the Sande society in Sierra Leone. It is 43cm tall and is large enough to slip over an individual’s head and rest on their shoulders. The mask depicts the highly stylized features of the beautiful inhabiting spirit but is marred with a large crack that runs the length of the proper left side of the face. The overall condition of the mask is moderate. The wood appears sound despite the large crack and numerous superficial abrasions, dents and accretions. However, while the wood is fairly structurally robust, the raffia skirting is extremely fragile and is actively shedding fibers.  
Although this mask was procured some time around the turn of the twentieth century, the production and use of Sowei continues to this day. Although Sowei are understood by the Mende to be objects of great ritual power, the crack on this mask makes it unsuitable for ritual use (Boone 1986, 157). However, even as merely a piece of sculpture, the mask is held by the Mende to be an object of respect and must be treated accordingly (Boone 1986, 162). This invisible demarcation between sacred and profane iterations of Sowei explains the widespread availability of these objects in museums and other cultural institutions. Masks that fail to meet the rigorous standards for inhabitation are ritually useless and are therefore appropriate and available for trade.
A small label attached to the skirting shows that the mask was acquired by UCL during the dispersal of Henry Wellcome’s collection. Wellcome was an insatiable ethnographic collector and he and his agents amassed works from all over the world (Bailey 2008). However, the fact that the mask was collected during a period of empire invariably ties its significance to the legacies of British colonialism and the euro-centrism of early anthropological thought. These historic concerns cast long shadows that continue to temper contemporary associations between the mask and the challenges that plague contemporary Sierra Leone (Lange 2009; Little 2003). As the mask is performed in association with the practice of female genital mutilation, some might look at the Sowei as an image of feminine power while others might see it as a totem of sexual oppression.
        As a part of Material Culture Collection the mask is now actively used in teaching anthropology and museum studies. In this context the mask is primarily valued for the information it can communicate about the people who created and collected it. To encourage its continued use the temperature should be maintained near 19°C (±2) and the relative humidity stabilized between 25-50% (±5).

All Images courtesy of the author.  No reuse without permission.

Bailey, P. 2008. Henry Wellcome the Collector. Wellcome Trust Website. Retrieved on 22 March from the World Wide Web:

Boone, S. 1986. Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art. London: Yale University Press.

Lange, M., 2009. Lineages of Despotism and Development. University of Chicago Press. Retrieved on 23 March from the World Wide Web:

Little, C., 2003. Female Genital Circumcision: Medical and Cultural Considerations. Journal of Cultural Diversity, 10. 30-34. Retrieved on 27 March from the World Wide Web:

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2015-16), one of the core courses of the UCL MA  Principles of Conservation. As part of their assessed work for this course, students were asked to investigate objects from the UCL Ethnography Collections at the UCL Department of Anthropology. Here they present a summary of their main conclusions. We hope you enjoy our work! Comments are most welcome.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Support our fellow conservators in France

New legislation in France has limited the conservation profession to the arts and crafts field, therefore ignoring specificity, knowledge and skills necessary to practice. 

It has been reported that only one percent of French conservators are hired by heritage institutions, making their voices almost impossible to be heard.

A group of French artists and professionals in the culture/heritage sector, as well as professional organizations have written a letter to the French government to ask for recognition of conservators' qualifications and a change to work conditions/contracts. 

Please sign the petition to support our French colleagues by clicking here

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