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Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Ethnography in Focus at the British Museum

Recently The Ministry took a trip to the British Museum to check out some of their current exhibitions, and happened upon a little gem: The 'Object in Focus' Gallery featuring an ethnographic object, 'eek I love an ethno focused exhibit' and I was far from disappointed.

Just to the right of the front doors is Room 2 a small gallery, seemingly by passed by the majority of visitors. The space contained only one object and an amazing amount of information about it. As an Anthropology graduate and one who loves to criticize the misinterpretation and under representation of ethnographic collection I was pretty thrilled with this little discovery - The Sowei Mask: Spirit of Sierra Leone.
The Sowei Mask is representative of the important initiation rituals of the Sande Society - a women's association - in Sierra Leone. The Society takes adolescent  girls from nearby groups into a cleared area in the forest where they stay sometimes for up to a year. In this liminal period ( An anthro term to describe the period spent away from the norm) the girls firstly undergo female circumcision. (Yes this is often subject to bad press and negative associations but it is very common in non western societies and often seen as a vital part of becoming a woman and so many young girls look to this as proving their transformation into adulthood) Once the circumcision and scarification wounds have healed the participants are put to learning new skills such as cloth dying and cooking and through their time spent a special bond is ignited in the group. This social cohesion is cemented by the rituals of songs and dance throughout their liminality.

This is where the mask comes in. The Sowei Mask is regarded as a psychical manifestation of the spirit of the Sande Society and its powerful medicines, worn by senior members of the tribe it brings the group together in dance and song and also acts as a celebration and distraction from their current state. The power of the mask symbolises more than the transformation of girls into women but the social bonds that are created whilst the girls are in this state of liminality.

The Mask is exhibited as the only object in the room, while the walls tell its story, ranging from who owned it - Thomas Joshua Alldridge, its iconography - the top hat that shows the influence of westerners, and a beautiful video projection of the senior members using it, dancing and singing among the members. This important object however isn't the only one in the collection, and the Museum could have exhibited its sister pieces beside it, along with other objects that would help to tell its story but the choice to make it stand alone and speak for itself was so effective. The way its story has been told through a text and video explanation was engaging, and it was refreshing to see how one object could produce so many words and so much to learn.

 How could I criticise such a wonderful display of Ethnography?

Sowei Mask: Spirit of Sierra Leone is on in Room 2 of the British Museum until 28th April.

To learn more about the Anthropological theory of Liminality check out Victor Turner's 'The Ritual Process'
Or about the Sande Society, check out by Ruth B Phillips Masking in Mende Sande society initiation rituals. (1975)

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