SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — Wearing masks during the pandemic has become so second-nature to many of us that we may overlook just what impact they’ve had on our daily lives over the past year. A new exhibit on the campus of Augustana University is giving masks their due, by featuring face coverings from across the world and across the centuries.
The historical significance of wearing a mask during the pandemic isn’t lost on Augustana senior Rachel Bachman, who works at the Eide/Dalrymple Gallery on campus.
“I do think this a historic moment and I can’t wait to find masks in our cars 5 years from now, or in like the bottom of your purse or your backpack and remember this moment. But yeah, this is a unique time to be alive,” Bachman said.
But you don’t have to wait five years to find a relic from the pandemic. A COVID-19 mask is one of the items on display in the gallery.
“It will be one of the contributing factors to reorganizing part of human society,” Augustana Archeology Laboratory Director Adrien Hannus said.
Augustana anthropology professor Adrien Hannus says the coronavirus mask has had a profound impact on how people interact with one another. The covering makes it harder for us to read facial cues in others, thereby limiting communication.
“And these masks that we’re now constrained to wear, remove a good deal of that type of expression, so you have a much harder time reading the inner thoughts of the other,” Hannus said.
Masks have a long history on the front lines of pandemics. Doctors treating patients for the bubonic plague during the Middle Ages wore a bizarre-looking mask with a bird-like beak to protect them from the deadly disease.
“These masks were created where they would fill the beak with various aromatic substances, rose petals for instance, mint leaves, various herbs and aromatics to kill the overwhelming odor they were dealing with,” Hannus said.
The healing power of masks goes all the way back to the earliest human societies when a masked shaman would call on the spirit powers to bring healing.
“In many of these cultures that these rituals were being conducted, the spirit powers that came to be contained in the masks and the costumes was so profound, that when the rituals were finished, they destroyed the artifacts,” Hannus said.
“The human ingenuity and creativity just goes so far back to prehistory, that’s the thing that fascinates me the most,” Eide/Dalrymple Gallery Coordinator John Peters said.
Many of the masks on display are from Hannus’ private collection. His fascination with masks goes all the way back to his childhood.
“As a youngster, I went to museums around the country with my parents and I was really drawn to masks because they were beautiful creations and they also, to me as a youngster, were strange,” Hannus said.
But that strangeness is what gives the masks their power to move us. From their ornate beauty to their startling ghoulishness, masks, Hannus says, can paradoxically conceal our identities yet at the same time reveal much about ourselves.
“So masks grant a person a level of anonymity which makes them feel less vulnerable to display their deepest secrets,” Hannus said.
And as the masks reveal their secrets here at Augustana, Hannus says the plain and commonplace COVID-19 mask is deserving of its rightful place in the gallery.
“You can’t have an exhibit about masks now, without including masks now,” Hannus said.
The Face Behind the Mask exhibit is closed for spring break but will re-open on April 6th. We have a link to Augustana’s website if you want to check out the gallery hours or learn more about each of the masks.