Faces of death
Death masks in the museum
The act of making a death mask can be interpreted as a stubborn, existential act of defiance, as an attempt to freeze a certain point in time. And not just any point in time; a point of transition between the state of being alive and the state of being dead. On the other hand, death masks can also be interpreted as simply a pragmatic solution to the challenge of creating a life-like template for sculptors and artists, without having to deal with living, breathing, unorderly casting subjects. A death mask is obviously a copy of a face, but it is potentially representing much more than just the physical features of the subject.
In this article, Ole Marius Hylland discusses the practice of producing death masks as a unique form of copying practice. Following short introductions of both the cultural history of death masks and death masks in museums and the making of the masks, he compares a set of short, disparate object biographies of selected death masks in Norwegian museums’ custody. The stories of these objects, however incomplete and uncomprehensive, illustrate quite evidently that, at the same time as museums in theory are institutions for every imaginable man-made object, there are categories of objects, among them death masks, that defy tidy classifications, are challenging to display and that seemingly are made meaningless through being contextless. Such objects might be re-instated with some of their original meaning through attempts to retrace the steps though which they ended up in their respective collections, as this article aims to do.