10 peculiar and splendid masks

Masks might come to symbolise 2020. But they have a rich and often strange history. 

Black and white image of a group of men wearing large face masks.
Masked men and costumed boys at the Ballarat Gala Day in 1935.

What do you need in outer space and beneath the ocean? What protects those who perform surgery and rob banks? What can ward off both prying eyes and invisible killers?

Masks may come to symbolise 2020, a year that was first defined by catastrophic bushfires and then a global pandemic, before it was three months old. But masks have a long and rich history.

The Golden Mask of Tutankhamun, the masks of the Venice Carnival, Guy Fawkes masks, the mask of Hollywood superheroes and horror villains—masks have been with us since the murkiest depths of human history, across our varied cultures.

Depending on the form they take, masks can terrify, transform, arouse or amuse us. They whisper to our most primal of emotions. And, often, long after a person has been forgotten, their mask remains.

So we took a dive into the vaults of Museums Victoria and emerged with 10 important, beautiful, surprising and/or downright weird masks. As well as a few strange photos...

A mask of secrets

A fibre figure resembling a head coated with natural pigment. It has gaps for the eyes and mouth and an elongated nose.
In Papua New Guinea, masks transform identities or invoke spiritual beings.

When a chosen boy placed this upon his head, secrets were revealed to him and he became a man.

A male didagur mask, it represents the spirits of the natural world.

In the Sepik River area of Papua New Guinea, masks like this are essential in ritual performances of initiation.

Masks are used across the majority of PNG for varying cultural practices, many of which still exist to this day.

They are not just limited to the face—some masks incorporate the whole body.

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A hero’s mask

Pale blue, flat folded face mask with blue valved respirator. Elastic loop to secure to face.
A Draeger FFP2V Dust Mask.

Some heroes don’t wear masks to protect their identity, but to protect themselves from smoke and fumes.

Dust masks like this were used by firefighters who fought the 2009 Black Saturday fires, which killed 173 people and are regarded as one of the country’s worst natural disasters.

This particular mask is part of a collection which documents the life of bush poet and volunteer firefighter Peter Auty.

Read Peter's story here

A talking mask

Painted rubber mask, moulded in the form of Gerry Gee 's face. The face of the mask is painted with red lips, moulded raised eyebrows and eyes painted in brown.
Moulded and painted face mask of ventriloquist doll Gerry Gee.

This is a mask of a mask.

It was made in the likeness of ventriloquist doll, Gerry Gee, in about 1960 for children's television program 'The Tarax Show'.

The mask was used during scenes in which Gerry would ‘walk, run or move about’. Schoolboy John Field would make the trip to the Richmond studios of GTV Channel 9, don this mask and act as Gerry’s double.

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A mask that breathed

Box respirator comprising face mask, canister and haversack.
A British World War I small box respirator with haversack.

The four years of global conflict which erupted in 1914 is commonly referred to as the First World War, WWI or the Great War. But some historians refer to it as the Chemists’ War.

For the first time, gases of war like chlorine and mustard were unleashed on a mass scale. While direct fatalities were relatively low, the trauma of gas warfare ran deep.

This small box respirator was first used by Allied troops on the Western Front and was considered to be the most effective gas mask of the war.

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A mask of glamour

Face mask with decorative head piece made from fabric scraps in green and gold colourings.
A mask made in Prue Acton's workrooms by designer Maree Menzel.

The 1980s was a decade of decadence and experimentation. 

The shoulder pads, the perms, the mullets—some of the fashion of the day was (arguably) best forgotten. 

Then there’s this piece, which ended up in our collection devoted to fashion designer Prue Acton.

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A mask of culture and knowledge

A headdress in the form of a crocodile with a fish tail.
This mask certainly falls into the 'splendid' category, and sits in a long tradition of mask making in the Torres Strait.

This is a mask made of Hawksbill Turtle shell, cassowary feathers, sea shells and seeds.

Its head takes the shape of a crocodile, its tail of a fish.

This mask was made in the Torres Straits sometime before 1885, when it was acquired from the Fly River region in New Guinea—evidence of trade networks between the islands.

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A mask that froze

Face mask made from black flannel, fully lined with white flannel.
This mask was found in large downstairs storeroom at Simpson's Glove Factory, Richmond.

On the face of it, this is probably our most terrifying-looking mask.

But it actually falls into the life-saving category. Known as a blizzard mask, it was made in the 1950s in Richmond for Australian research expeditions to Antarctica.

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A mask to kill ... the pain

Anaesthetic mask frame comprising gutter around face (to prevent leakage of the anaesthetic) and frame with hinged section, which clips open to allow the placement of a cloth to be soaked in the anaesthetic).
This mask was designed by German physician Dr Curt Schimmelbusch in 1890.

This mask may be more innocuous looking, but it was far more terrifying.

Schimmelbusch-type anaesthetic mask were used in surgery from 1890 to 1950.

The mask was placed over the nose and mouth of patients before pumping them with ether or chloroform.

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A mask of refuge

Mahogany mask painted and stained in black, brown and yellow. At the top of the mask is a carved head of an elephant with the trunk coming to the centre of the mask's forehead.
A traditional central African mask carved in Shepparton.

This is a mask that links a coup in central Africa to the regional Victorian city of Shepparton.

Called the Elephant Man mask, it was made by artist Nickel Mundabi Ngadwa in Australia in 2011.

Nickel and his family were forced to flee the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2000 and finally sought refuge in Australia in 2009.

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A gag mask

Life size puppet head, depicting a caricatural representation of a man.
Sam Newman, AFL champion and controversial media figure.

Former AFL footballer and current media personality Sam Newman’s career is as long as it is controversial.

But this mask harkens back to a simpler time for Sam, before he was embroiled in controversies around race, sexism and homophobia. 

It was used several times in 'The Footy Show', once after the 1995 grand final and again in 1997, for a 'two headed' visual gag.

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