A museum in Oxford is hiding an African mask to “respect tradition” and so it cannot be seen by women

The University of Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum has decided not to display an African mask, in line with the tradition of its tribe of origin, which does not want women to see the object. This measure is part of the museum's new policy, aimed at so-called 'cultural safety'.

The mask, made by the Igbo people of Nigeria, was originally used exclusively in male rituals. According to local press, the museum's curators removed both the mask from the exhibition and its photos from the online archive, in an effort to respect cultural traditions and “ensure women don't see it.”

In Igbo culture, masks are very important elements and some rituals using them are performed only by men, in secret and away from the female gaze. This policy, pioneered among Britain's most important collections, is part of a 'decolonization' process by the Pitt Rivers Museum, which aims to approach with new eyes a collection 'closely linked to British imperial expansion'. A warning in the museum's database notes that the Igbo mask “may be culturally sensitive” and is “not typically worn in certain public or community contexts.”

The wooden mask has been labeled as an object 'not intended to be viewed by women', has not been put on display and no photographs are available online. A note on the museum's website explains that while photographs exist, the curators “cannot display the material publicly.”

This effort to ensure women don't see the mask follows a series of policies aimed at ensuring what they call “cultural safety” regarding taboos related to secret ceremonies, human remains, nudity and gender roles. A series of policies established this year require warnings to be added to the museum's database for objects that may be “culturally sensitive,” and some even to be removed from the public eye.

Other items traditionally intended for men, such as a mask from Papua New Guinea, are still on display but are marked as 'sensitive' and their photographs are not displayed on the museum's website. A general warning for the collection reads: “At the Pitt Rivers Museum, we take cultural safety seriously. “Our goal is to keep everyone informed through a message.”

Other advice applies to individual objects such as an 'isikira', a head ornament, and 'extremely culturally sensitive objects' worn by Maasai girls after undergoing 'circumcision', a reference to female genital mutilation. The popular collection of shrunken heads, or “tsantsa,” that was removed from the exhibit also included a warning that they are widely believed to contain the souls of those inhabiting the Shuar and Achuar peoples of Ecuador who created them.

The decision to remove the heads from the exhibition was made in 2020 following the Black Lives Matter protests, when the museum announced a “comprehensive program of work to delve deeply into the museum's colonial legacy”. The museum has since pledged to return its collection of Benin bronzes to Nigerian authorities and agreed to return a 15th-century statue to India.

Other museums have hidden other objects for religious reasons, as is the case with several tablets sacred to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church found in the British Museum and other collections, but because the objects are traditionally only seen by priests, curators are left out held the door. public opinion and never studied.

A spokesperson for the Pitt Rivers Museum, which houses the University of Oxford's anthropological and archaeological collections, said they are working with groups around the world whose works are represented in their collection to ensure they are properly are exhibited.

Art critic and author Ruth Millington, whose book 'Muse' tackles the subject of women in art, is among the voices who have raised concerns about the danger of setting a dangerous precedent by hiding objects due to cultural taboos. “To deny all women, of all cultures, the sight of something because it is taboo in a certain culture seems an extreme position, especially considering that this country is a modern, liberal and enlightened society,” he denounced.

History professor Jeremy Black, from the University of Exeter, has also criticized the museum's warnings as “the absurdity of virtue signalling”. Black claimed that “cultural safety” is a flawed idea that suggests certain activists have a monopoly on talking about the past.

Founded in 1884, the Pitt Rivers Museum has more than 700,000 items in its collections and attracts approximately 480,000 visitors annually.

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