The reason there’s no Guy Fawkes mask in the British Museum’s huge collection of masks

The British Museum has a collection of over 3,000 historically significant masks. Not in the collection, however, is one of the most recognizable British masks of our time: the Guy Fawkes mask. A key member of the conspiracy behind the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a plan to destroy the House of Lords and assassinate King James I, Fawkes is remembered at Guy Fawkes Night celebrations in the UK and l man himself has become something of a folk hero. Of course, Guy Fawkes masks – based on the style seen in the “V for Vendetta” comic – are favorites of hacker group Anonymous and protesters around the world. So why isn’t this iconic mask in the British Museum? From Atlas Obscura:

[Masks: the Art of Expression author John] Mac thinks the way the museum’s departments are organized might explain why there’s no Guy Fawkes mask to be found there, not even hidden in the basement. With curator responsibilities divided into geographic areas, Mac says, “there is no single curator to oversee the vast collection of masks. Because of this, blind spots develop.”

Head of Collections Management at the British Museum, David Packer, thinks differently. “I certainly wouldn’t say it’s a blind spot, but masks aren’t particularly associated with Britain, except for gas and plague masks.”

Packer adds: “The British Museum does not believe it should be comprehensive in terms of contemporary culture, or Britain as a whole.” However, the collection includes contemporary pieces, such as store-bought plastic Halloween masks from Veracruz, Mexico, and two handcrafted COVID masks from Burma. “Curators have broad creative discretion, and we’re confident they know what would benefit their part of the collection,” Packer says. “A Guy Fawkes mask was never acquired because our curator for Britain never saw the need to include one in the collection.”

Rather than an oversight or a conspiracy, Packer sees a very simple explanation for the absence of a single Guy Fawkes mask, despite its historical importance, from the inventory of the venerable institution. There aren’t many notable or collectible Guy Fawkes masks from the past 400 years, Packer says, because “almost all of them have gone up in smoke. Guy Fawkes is about ritual destruction. That’s the whole point.”

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