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Library Displays Ceremonial Masks

Ceremonial mask
3/16/2008 —

Penn State York’s Lee R. Glatfelter Library recently received a donation of 30 ceremonial dancing masks which are now on display.  The masks, from Latin American nations, primarily Mexico and Guatemala, were donated by the family of the late Gary Collison, Ph.D., Penn State York Professor of English/American Studies, who died last year. These masks were part of a much larger collection gathered by Collison, many of which were purchased in his travels to other countries.

The masks were worn by dancers playing out rituals that are rooted in centuries old ceremonies, and are typically part of festivals such as Carnaval and The Day of the Dead.  Masks are meant to convey the characteristics of what is being portrayed, such as an animal or a human characteristic like violence or stupidity, and can signify a variety of things. Some masks and dances are intended as parodies, some have to do with purification rites, and others act out Christ’s Passion or the cycle of life on earth.

The motifs used in this collection of masks are many. Male visages are prevalent as are those of the devil; several are animals and one is a harlot. Almost all the masks are carved from wood and painted in bright colors.  Several masks also have attached hair pieces fashioned either from animal hair or a plant fiber much like that found in rope. A number of the masks have been extensively used in dancing ceremonies, as evidenced by the dark sweat marks on the varnish inside the mask. Other masks in the collection are regarded as not authentic, in that these were not made for the ceremonial dances, but rather for the tourist trade. The oldest mask in the collection, a deer head mask complete with real antlers, is estimated to be between 50 – 60- years-old.

Most of the collection is displayed on a wall adjacent to the circulation counter, and is easily viewed by library users. The remaining masks, those considered to be more valuable or distinctive, are displayed in the library’s conference room. Although the conference room is locked when not being used, the masks may still be viewed through a large conference room window.

“The library is grateful to Bryan Stevens, a long time friend of Collison, for extending his knowledge and expertise in identifying and attributing the masks in the collection,” said David B. Van de Streek, assistant librarian at the campus. “The masks are a wonderful addition to our library.”

Along with the masks, a small collection of Collison’s books about masks were donated.   These books are being added to the library’s already existing materials on masks.  The combined book collection numbers close to 30, most of which are not duplicated elsewhere in the Penn State system.   Regular library hours resume March 17 and the masks can be viewed Mondays-Thursdays, 8 a.m.- 9 p.m.; Fridays, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.; and Sundays, 1 - 6:00 p.m.   For more information on Penn State York’s Lee R. Glatfelter Library visit www.libraries.psu.edu/york/ or call (717) 771-771-4020.

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