University of Oxford museum hides African mask that 'must not be seen by woman' as creators 'forbade' it

​The Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford
George Bunn

By George Bunn

Published: 18/06/2024

- 16:16

Updated: 18/06/2024

- 16:24

The museum said it was part of a series of new policies in the interest of 'cultural safety'

An African mask has been taken off display at a popular museum due to women being forbidden from viewing it.

The mask, made by the Igbo people in Nigeria, was on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford.

It would originally have been used in a male-only ritual and would have been a central part of the Igbo culture. Some masquerade rituals carried out by men wearing the ceremonial object are entirely male-only and carried out in secret away from female spectators.

The management at the museum said it was part of new policies in the interest of "cultural safety."

\u200bThe Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford

The Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford


The wooden mask has been given the label "must not be seen by women", is not on display, and has no photographs available to view online. In the museum's database, the collection is issued with the warning that it "may be culturally sensitive" and "not normally be used in certain public or community contexts."

It comes as the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is aiming to address a collection "closely tied to British Imperial expansion" as part of its "decolonisation" process.

Other items traditionally intended for men, including a mask from Papua New Guinea, have remained on display. However, these have been marked "sensitive" and their photos are not shown on the museum website, reports The Times.

A warning for the collection overall states: "At the Pitt Rivers Museum, we take cultural safety seriously. We aim to keep everyone informed by providing a cultural advice notice."


\u200bInside the Pitt Rivers museum (file pic)

Inside the Pitt Rivers museum (file pic)


However, feminist critic and art historian Ruth Millington raised questions about the decision, saying that women should be allowed to decide what they should see.

She said: "To deny all women, of all cultures, the sight of something because that is a taboo in one particular culture seems an extreme stance, particularly given that this country is a modern, liberal and enlightened society.

"Surely women should be given the right to decide, after reading about any cultural sensitivities, if they wish to look upon the artefact or not. When it comes to art, we should all have equal rights, regardless of sex, to view what we would like to.

"Does this position also imply that only male curators in the museum can handle, care for and interpret this object? This stance seems to imply that no woman has ever seen the mask, which I think is highly unlikely. As a feminist art historian, I now want to see it all the more."

Pitt Rivers museum\u200b

Pitt Rivers museum


A spokesperson for the Pitt Rivers Museum, which contains Oxford University’s anthropological and archaeological collections, said it was working with groups around the world whose artefacts are represented in its collection, to ensure they are selectively displayed.

Other objects could become restricted on the basis of gender in future, but the museum said: "These restrictions only refer to a tiny number of objects where we have received specific requests from communities.

"There is a lot more work to be done and we are keen to work with communities on the care of these objects."

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