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Every (false) face tells a story

Globe-spanning MSU Museum exhibit has ’Mask’ appeal


“Masks are not just strange, exotic, or primitive,” said Gary Morgan, exhibit curator at the Michigan State University Museum. “Masks and masking is something people do across cultures.”

The exhibit “Mask: Secrets and Revelations” features approximately 240 masks and took a year to develop.

According to Morgan, much of the exhibit revolves around an age-old battle: “It pits good against evil.”

That’s evident in the sections devoted to masks from popular culture and traditional Mexican devil masks.

The superhero masks reflect the belief in some African cultures that their ancestors have taken on animal forms. Just as an African mask imitates the beak of a bird, the ears on Batman’s costume imitate those of a bat.

This is one of the main points of masking, Morgan said, to make the human into something more.

The idea of the mask is about transformation — whether it’s transforming into someone uninhibited (like the party masks on display), transforming into an alternate identity, such as a superhero, or transforming an individual into part of a team.

Sports, work and war each have their own sections in the show, including MSU hockey and football helmets. Not only are sports helmets there for protection but they also make you part of the team, Morgan said, and the team is more important than the individual.

A large, heavy Sparty helmet is on display, as worn by the MSU mascot from the 1950s to the 1980s.

“People had to help (the mascot) onto the football field because if he lost his balance he couldn’t recover,” Morgan said. “It was a very comical sight, seeing Sparty teetering all over the field.”

“Masks” showcases even earlier incarnations of Sparty, too.

“MSU did a good job with Sparty,” Morgan said. “They took the best parts of the Spartans, like courage and fighting against terrible odds, and put that into our (iconic) mascot.”

The exhibit also features masks that represent gender and sexuality. Usually attributes seen as positive — like family, fertility and harmony — are masks of women, whereas masculine masks display violent and disruptive qualities.

The concept of perfect femininity is seen in a mask from Liberia’s female-dominated Mande tribe: The “healthy woman” shows a full face, a small mouth — because the Mande believe good women don’t talk much — and “fat rolls” on the neck, Morgan said.

“This was a healthy woman, especially in a tribe that relies on crops. It is quite different from that of a Nigerian ’woman’ mask that shows a much thinner face and scarification marks that were seen as beauty to them.”

The museum also includes digital materials at the exhibit and online. Smart phones can scan images and find additional content.

Companion exhibits to "Mask" include “Radiation Series” by Swedish photographer Magnus Westerborn, which shows the personalized masks created for patients being treated with cancer of the head and neck. It runs through May.

MSU’s Media Installation Class for theater students created interactive kiosks where visitors can “try on” masks. The class will also hold a poetry workshop and public presentation at 7 p.m. Feb 23.

’Mask: Secrets and Revelations’

Through Jan. 22, 2012 Michigan State University Museum

9 a.m.-5 p.m Mondays-Fridays; 10 a.m. -5 p.m. Saturdays; 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Sundays


(517) 355-2370



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