Crocodile dance maskfrom the Torres
11 August – 16 October 2011
Open late Fridays
The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Objects in focus
This fearsome crocodile mask was worn as part of ‘death dances’ and other ceremonies and celebrations in the central Torres Strait Islands, north of mainland Australia.
Dance is a powerful expression of Torres Strait Island culture, and masks form an important symbolic and dramatic element of performances. This display recreates the atmosphere of a night dance, in which performers appeared one after the other, their movements and elaborate costumes illuminated by a blazing fire.
The crocodile mask was made in the 1880s from local wood, turtle shell, and feathers. The addition of metal saw blades for the crocodile’s teeth shows the influx of new materials and technology to the islands at the time. The maker was an important leader named Maino. His friendship with Alfred Cort Haddon, the researcher who collected the mask, is also explored in the display.
This highly significant mask was created at a time of great change. However, Torres Strait Islanders still create masks and choreograph new dances as part of a continuing cultural tradition. This is a unique opportunity to experience the culture of the central Torres Strait Islands, past and present.
Crocodile dance mask. Made of wood, hawksbill turtle-shell, cuscus fur, metal saw blades, cassowary feathers, and coloured glass beads. From the Torres Strait Islands, north of mainland Australia, 1880s.
Conservation of the mask
In preparation for the exhibition, there was some essential conservation that needed to be done to the crocodile mask. British Museum conservators Monika Harter, Rachel Berridge and Hazel Gardiner worked for several weeks to ensure the mask was in good enough condition to be safely put on display.
One of the key intentions of the conservation was to preserve the original materials so that the visitor can interpret and appreciate the object in the way it was originally intended.
As part of the conservation process, changes made to the object throughout its history are also noted and preserved as evidence of its story. Examples of this are tooth marks left on the mask by the wearer’s attempts to hold it in place. This kind of change to the object informs us as to how the object was used.
This slideshow (right) details the conservation of feathers that feature on the crocodile mask.