Sunday, 3 April 2016

A barkcloth mask from Papua New Guinea (M.0017)

M.0017: A barkcloth mask from Papua New Guinea

Figure.2 Sketch by Williams, 1940, p.268
Figure.1: Photo taken by author, March 2016
Basic Dimensions: Height: Approximately 27 cm.
Width at widest point: Approximately 29 cm.
 Circumference at base: Approximately 61.5 cm.

Figure.1: On the left showing a frontal view of the mask in the Material Cultures collection at UCL. 
Figure.2: On the right shows a sketch of an Eharo mask made by F.E. Williams, an Anthropologist, who worked extensively in Papua New Guinea, particularly in the region of the Gulf Coast.


The object is a barkcloth mask from Papua New Guinea (PNG). The mask is part of the Material Cultures teaching collection, located in the Department of Anthropology at UCL. Based on research into the origins of a number of similar masks, I believe that this mask is mostly likely an Eharo dance mask made by the Elema peoples of the southeastern coast of Papua New Guinea (fig.1 and 2).
A drawing by the author
showing a
side view of the mask.
March 2016

Component materials included a cane frame and stitching, an outer barkcloth layer; modeled to the frame, and pigments; ochers, lime based white pigments, and charcoals. (Hill, 1997,p.38-39), (Williams, 1940, p.241) 

Eharo masks were constructed exclusively by men, as part of a long cycle of initiation festivals which began with the building of a new men's longhouse or “Eravo”(Williams, 1940, p.32, p.183-187). The cycle of festivals itself is called “Hevehe and may last up to 15 to 20 years (Williams, 1940, p.32, p.183-187) (tepapamuseum,“Tales from Te Papa episode 74,” 2011). The making of masks and performance in various episodes of the festival provided a vehicle through which young boys and men could be initiated into the Eravo, and introduced to the various "secrets" of the Elema's spiritual life (fig.3). These festival cycles were also believed to kept malignant spirits at bay, and helped maintain balance and social cohesion within the village (Williams, 1940, p.32, p.183-187).
Figure.3: Two men wearing Eharo masks. The masks are comical in nature with totemic designs which can represent animals, fish or even mythical creatures (Newton,1961, p.27)(Williams, 1940, p.266).©Trustees of the British Museum

European colonizations of PNG created an interest on the part of the colonizers in the martial culture of the natives of PNG itself. This interest resulted in an almost exhaustive collecting by Europeans (Gosden, Knowles, 2001, p.6-7), which culminated in the inclusion of artifacts from PNG in many European institutions.  
Figure.4: Eharo Mask in the British Museum

©Trustees of the British Museum

In its current location, the mask plays an important role as a research tool for students at the University. Barkcloth masks of this type are particularly delicate and rare. The mask’s inclusion in a teaching collection is significant, considering the social history it carries with it, both in its original context, and as a product of Colonial expansion (fig.4).

The overall condition of the mask appears to be stable and at this point is low conservation priority, although further investigation would be beneficial.  
However, the mask is inherently delicate, due to the nature of the mask's construction and component materials. It has suffered damage from poor storage conditions, and wear due to use and handling (fig.5 and 6).
Figure.5: Damage caused by use is visible, as well as the embrittlement
of the barkcloth fibers. Delineated in yellow are areas where
the cane frame has broken through the barkcloth fabric.
Also visible is the dehydrated barkcloth, with gaps and holes.

Damage caused by mechanical action is a risk for this object in its current setting. Temperature and Relative Humidity fluctuations are also a concern, particularly since fluctuations occur regularly within the current storage location. These fluctuations create a number of problems for organic artifacts of this type, including embrittlement of plant fibers and the catalyzing of hydrolysis (Knonkright, 1992, p.139-146).

Figure.6 Detail of the eye with powdering and friable
The object is currently on a mount which is housed inside a box made of archival blue board. This will reduce handling and help to buffer some of the environmental fluctuation.

Works Cited:

Gosden, C., &Knowles, C. 2001. Collecting colonialism: material culture and colonial change. Oxford: Berg.

Hill, R. (1997) Traditional BarkCloth from Papua New Guinea: Materials, Production and Conservation, In:Wright, M.(Editor) 2001. Barkcloth, Aspects of Preparation, Use, Deterioration, Conservation and Display. London: Archetype Publication Ltd.

Kronkright, D., 1992, Deterioration of Artifacts made from Plant Materials, In:Florian, M.-L.E.,

Kronkright, D.P.; Norton, R.E. 1992. The conservation of artifacts made from plant materials. Santa Monica: Getty Trust.

Newton, D. 1961. Art styles of the Papuan Gulf. New York: Museum of Primitive Art.

Williams, F.E. 1940. Drama of Orokolo; the social and ceremonial life of the Elema. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Tepapamuseum. 2011. Sacred Masks - Tales from Te Papa episode 74. YouTube. Available at: [Accessed March 30, 2016].

Anon. UCL Ethnographic Collections' Online Catalogue - Search Form. UCL Ethnographic Collections' Online Catalogue - Search Form. Available at: [Accessed March 28, 2016].

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.  

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