Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Mask M.0019:Northwest Coast Indian Mask

Mask M.0019 in UCL Ethnography Collection 

Object Description 
Figure 1 The front and Back of the mask M.0019 with scale. (Photo: Jiaxin Wu 25. 02. 2019)
Object M.0019 in UCL Ethnographic Collection is a humanoid wooden mask which is carved into three-dimensional shape and painted with black and red, outlining the human facial features (Figure 1) . The holes on the sides and top of the mask suggest it may have had other components attached. The dimensions and the weight of the mask are shown in figure 2.

Figure 2 Dimensions and weight of the mask  (photos: Jiaxin Wu 25. 02. 2019)

Statement of Significance 

The mask unfortunately does not have any record about when, where and by whom it was collected. However, the tag of the mask is usually associated with the Wellcome Collection and suggests it is highly possible the mask was part of the distributions from Wellcome Collection  during 1951 to 1954.

The tag of the mask states: ‘M.19 Mask’ and ‘N. America and Eskimo’, which links the mask with Eskimo. However, the form and style of the mask is more consistent with those originating from Northwest Coast Indigenous groups (figure 3a; 3b) .

 (3a) (3b)     
Figure 3a, 3b :Two masks have similar style as the mask M.0019 found in the British Museum: (3a): The dance masks from Tlingit object no. Am1842,1210.84; (3b): the medicine(shaman’s)mask from Tlingit object no. Am, St.705, displaying in the room 26 (The British Museum 2019) .  

The Northwest coast refers to the western region of North America bounded by the Pacific Ocean (figure 4). Nowadays, American Indian groups living in this region  partially share some cultural customs and artistic practices (King, J.C.H 1979; Inverarity, R.B., 1971Malin, E. 1978). 
Figure 4 The location of the Northwest Coast. The arrow points out the study area. (Williams, M.S.T 2013:6)

The abundant natural resources facilitated the development of local  society and culture especially art and wood-working. The exposed transverse surface of the mask indicated it was extracted longitudinally from its raw material ------ highly possible is yellow cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) which is one of common wood used for carving ceremonial objects due to its fine and soft texture (Emmons et al.,1991:165-166;Malin, E. 1978: 22;Alix, C 2012:17). The form of art in Northwest Coast is known for its three-dimensional sculptural art and symmetrical curvilinear designs on two-dimensional surface (Holm, B 1972; Inverarity, B.R 1971). 

The wooden mask represents the local craftsmanship as the carvers were trained to follow the characteristic style of carving and use particular tools (Malin, E. 1978; Emmons et al., 1991: 167-170). The tool-marks of trimming, carving, chiseling and scrubbing found on the mask cancorresponds to tools described by Malin (1978: 21). (Figure 5 and 6) 

Figure 5 The tool-marks found at the front of the mask and the corresponding tools (image a,b,c from Malin, E 1978:21) (Photo:Jiaxin Wu 04. 03. 2019)
Figure 6 The tool-marks found at the back of the mask and corresponding tools (image d, e from Malin, E 1978:21)
(Photo: Jiaxin Wu 04. 03. 2019)

The humanoid mask also attached with social and cultural value as it represents the spirits and or ancestor, is probably carved for three special occasions: 

  •        Potlatch ------ the feasting activity, represents the chiefs and ancestors of high rank;
  •        Ceremonies ------ for performing and re-enacting myths (figure 7)
  •       For shamanism and healing 

Figure 7 The transformation mask for potlatch dancing from Kwakwaka’wakw (Inverarity , B.R 1971:figure 90)
However, after the potlatch ban by Government of Canada in 1881 (until 1951)(John, L 1992), the masks made later were just for sale and for appealing travellers and traders (King, J 1979). Therefore, the mask with traces of use is a good example of Northwest Coast Indian art , culture, and society.

Condition Assessment 

With the aid of UV light and the microscope, the revealed physical damage and accretions of the mask are summarized in figure 8 below. 
Figure 8 The summary of the mask's condition with illustrations 

Proposal for preventive conservation

The suspicious bio-deterioration found on the mask needs the further examination, and conservation treatment should be discussed after that. 

The mask is currently stored at the third top drawer of the showcase in Material Culture Room. There is a potential risk that the mask will sway when it moves with the drawer. Therefore, it needs a mount to prevent it from swaying and protect it when the drawer is moving. 


Alix, C 2012 'Introduction: Arctic peoples and wood' in Études/Inuit/Studies, Vol.36, No.1 pp.5-13,15-22 Université Laval

Emmons et al., 1991. The Tlingit Indians. George Thornton Emmons; edited with additions by Frederica de Laguna and a biography by Jean Low., Seattle: New York: University of Washington Press ; American Museum of Natural History.

Holm, B 1982 Chapter 2: From in Northwest Coast Art in Indian art traditions of the Northwest coast edited by Carlson R.L  Burnaby, B.C: Archaeology Press, Simon Fraser University.

Inverarity, R.B., 1971. Art of the Northwest Coast Indians Berkeley. London: University of California Press. 

John, L 1992. "After the Fur Trade: The Aboriginal Labouring Class of British Columbia, 1849-1890" in Canadian Historical Association. vol. 3 (no. 1): 69–93. URI:https://id.erudit.org/iderudit/031045ar

Malin, E. 1978. A world of faces: Masks of the Northwest Coast Indians; with line illustrations by the writer. Portland: Timber Press. 

Williams, M.S.T.  2009 ‘Alaska and Its People: An Introduction’ in The Alaska native reader history, culture, politics / edited by Williams, M.S.T., Pp. 1-11 Durham: Duke University Press.  

The British Museum 2019 Collection Online:

Figure 3a : Object Am1842,1210.84     
https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=537657&partId=1&searchText=Tlingit+mask&page=1 [retrieved 05. 04. 2019]  

Figure 3b : Object Am, St.705 
https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=533907&partId=1&searchText=Tlingit+mask&page=1[retrieved 05. 04. 2019]

Q.0007: Ivory Spoon from the Kuba Kingdom

Figure 1 (photo taken by author, 2019) 
Q.0007 is 22 cm long and comprised of a ladle and handlecarved from one piece of elephant ivory about 200 years ago in the Kuba Kingdom, Africa 
Description, Materials, and Construction:  

Figure 2 (photo taken by author, 2019) 
The photo on the left shows the spoon under UV light--the whitish-blue glow confirms this is elephant ivory (Espinoza and Mann 2009, 10). The photo on the right shows clear examples of the cross-hatching found in elephant ivory (taken with DinoLite microscope at x50 magnification)  

Q.007 was carved by scrapping away the ivory into the desired shape, presumably with a float and a chisel (Okada 1981, 9). One can still clearly see the carving marks left behind by the tool when looking at the edges of the ladle. These various scratch marks have been filled and stained overtime, leaving behind brown steaks called patina (Smithsonian Institution 2019, 1) (Figure 3). The handle was decorated by the carver with two shafts joining together at the end of the handle in a triangular shape. this triangular motif was the continued on the two shafts by the carver as he lined the outer edges of the shafts with two layers of triangles (Figure 4). 

Figure 3 (photo taken by author with DinoLite microscope at x50 magnification, 2019) 
The picture on the left shows the joining of the handle to the ladle; clear chisel marks can be seen here. Similarly, on the right, one can see the carving marks left behind and filled with patina as the ivory aged.  

Context, Biography, and Significance:  

This spoon is from the Material Culture Room collection at the University College London. It came from the Kuba Kingdom in modern day Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa. This was carved and collected during the Belgian occupation of central Africa in the 19th century. How it became part of the MCR collection is unknown.  

Several of the Kuba Kingdom tribes were known to have carved these types of spoons, but this particular one most likely was carved by the Bongo or Boa tribes (Claessens 2013, 1). These spoons were used in rituals by lower-ranking members of the tribe in order to 'feed' higher-ranking men (Volper 2014, 2).  

The size of the ladle of the spoon, along with the angle and depth of it, made it impractical for actual use. Ivory is and was a valuable commodity, so it would not be practical to use these spoons for everyday use but rather in a ritual or ceremonial setting. Now, housed in the MCR, we show respect for both the object and the Kuba Kingdom by ensuring the spoon does not become dirty and stays intact (Australia ICOMOS 2013, 5).  

Assessment of Condition: 

Figure 4 (photo taken by author, 2019) 
The sides of the shafts are decorated with a triangle motif. These triangles are the only areas chipping on the spoon. 

The ivory spoon is in good condition overall. Over the past decades, the ivory has been chipped in some areas, specifically along the shafts of the handle (Figure 4). There is staining in the scrapes either from years of handling or dirt accumulation; however, the staining is part of the biography of the object and help highlight the tool marks left behind by the carver (Figure 3). However, the biggest issue with the condition of this ivory spoon is the cracking in the ivory as clearly seen in Figure 5. Ivory cracks when the temperature and relative humidity levels fluctuated dramatically overtime. In order to preserve this piece as long as possible, it is necessary to maintain the temperature and RH at appropriate levels year-round (Stone 2010, 7).  

Figure 5 (photo taken by author, 2019) 
The top of the ladle clearly shows cracking due to fluctuation in temperature and relative humidity; the cracks have been filled with dirt and oils overtime.   


            Australia ICOMOS, 2013. The Burra Charter: the Australia ICOMOS charter for places of  
cultural significance 2013. Retrieved on 22 March 2019 from the World Wide  

               Claessens, B., 2013. Ivory spoons from the Boa revisited.  Bruno Claessens: African Art  
 Research. Retrieved on 22 March 2019 from the World Wide Web: 

Espinoza, E. and Mann, M.J., 2009. Identification guide for ivory and ivory substitutes. US Fish  and Wildlife Service. Retrieved on 22 March 2019 from the World Wide Web: https://www.cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/resources/pub/E-Ivory-guide.pdf  

               How to Clean Stuff, 2019. How to Clean Antique Ivory. Retrieved on 22 March 2019 from       
               the World Wide Web http://www.howtocleanstuff.net/how-to-clean-antique-ivory/. 

               Lowes, S., Nunn, N., Robinson, J.A., Weigel, J.L., 2017. The Evolution of Culture and  
Institutions: Evidence from the Kuba Kingdom. Econometrica 85, 1065–1091. Retrieved on 22 March 2019 from the World Wide Web: https://doi.org/10.3982/ECTA14139

MCR Spreadsheets, Unit 1 and 4, provided by Echeverria, I., 2019. Material Culture Room.  

Mercier, D., 2014. Making Religious Subjects: Charting Bodily Distance and Proximity through Materials of Religious Subjectivation. UCL Ethnography Collection. Retrieved on 22  March from the World Wide Web: https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/ethnography-collections/2014/06/23/summer-exhibition-on-display-making-religious-subjects-charting-bodily-distance-and-proximity-through-materials-of-religious-subjectivation/ 

              Okada, B., 1981. Netsuke: Masterpieces from the Metroplitan Museum of Art. New York:  
Metropolitan Museum of Art Publications.  

              Smithsonian Institution, 2019.  The Care and Handling of Ivory Objects. Retrieved on 22 
              March  2019 from the World Wide  

             Stone, T., 2010. Care of Ivory, Bone, Horn and Antler. Canadian Conservation Institute 
             (CCI) Retrieved on  22 March 2019 from the World Wide  Web: https://www.canada.ca/en/conservation- 

            Volper, J., 2013. The Concave and the Convex: Ivory Spoons of the Northeastern     
            Congo. Tribal Art Magazine, no. 70. Retrieved on 22 March 2019 from the World 
            Wide Web:  http://www.tribalartmagazine.com/issue-70-sample-12. 

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