Three Objects: An Executioner’s Mask, a Bird Cage and a Water Pipe

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The objects we use in the present, collect and curate from the past, and ponder potentials for the future are fractured; yet they bring us so much wonder, even if they’re falling apart. Falling apart can hint at a story, a vibrant or mundane history, and a new perspective. They allow us to learn but also to fantasise. We can learn about our own existence through them and extrapolate their beauty even by looking through their cracks. This is why I’ve always loved visiting museums; learning about the artefacts they display, formulating my own fictional story of an object’s history, and getting lost in the vast architectural space the buildings are often composed of. This post will reflect this passion of mine through a personal exploration into a variety of artefacts from the Science Museum Group Collection that have stimulated my curiosity. It will consist of a short written piece expressing the reason for my intrigue for each object.

Executioner’s Mask, Europe, 1501-1700

The Executioner’s mask imitates a face, yet it’s stripped of all signs of humanity. It exhibits skilled craftsmanship; did they know how their creation was being used? The chain of those involved in an execution seems to go beyond the person behind the mask, is that why the mask creates a faceless shadow, so no one had to carry individual responsibility? The mask exists between sock and buskin, comedy and tragedy theatrical masks; questioning if executions were once viewed as performances. The distinctive nose could reference plague doctors, a questionable link for something that is meant to take life. The screws holding the mask in place and heavy construction material almost make me view the executioner as a prisoner, questioning who the executioner was, if it wasn’t the person behind the mask.

Water Pipe for Smoking Opium or Tobacco, China, 1801-1830

The water pipe is beautiful, delicate and enticing, making it all the more deadly; a femme fatale in stainless steel form. Harnessing obvious skilled craftmanship to mask, glamourise and romanticise a medicinal practice that transformed into dangerous addictions. It is fascinating how there were different styles for rich and poor, because if you strip it to its fundamental purpose, a pipe transcends class. Behind intricate design and expensive material, this pipe holds the same analgesic drug as its simpler counterparts. The pipe served to remove the pain experienced by many, no matter how privileged or impoverished they may have been.

Bird Cage from Sussex Lunatic Asylum

The personification and compartmentalisation of our own reality seems unimaginable, and a hard pill to swallow, especially if that reality is one trapped in a ‘lunatic asylum’. For me, this cage represents exactly that of a patient’s reality. The intentions of using this cage to aid therapy seemed good; to brighten up and restore the little hope patients had. Yet it seems obvious now that the entrapment of a caged animal placed in front of an institutionalised human being is deeply symbolic. The lack of that connection being made by the Victorians initially highlights how out of touch their views on morality and humanity were and leads me to question the extent of how much morality has to be learned, and how much is instinct.

Explore over 350,000 objects and archives from the Science Museum Group Collection here! Use the ‘Random Object Generator’ tool for a surprise, or be the first to see an object online using their ‘Never Been Seen’ tool!

2 Replies to “Three Objects: An Executioner’s Mask, a Bird Cage and a Water Pipe”

  1. Really enjoyed this article, especially the part talking about the universal nature of the pipe! 🙂

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