Conservation of Masks for Maya 2012: Lords of Time

February 13, 2012


One of the projects that we’re working on in the conservation lab right now is preparations for the Maya 2012: Lords of Time exhibition (opening on May 5th!). We’re currently examining and treating Guatemalan face masks. A common problem that many of these masks have is flaking paint.

Detail showing flaking and lifting paint
Detail of flaking and lifting paint








This is probably the result of frequent overpainting. The masks would have been repainted several times throughout their lives simply to improve their appearance or change the character depicted by the mask altogether.

Overall image of 48-4-14



Detail showing the paint layers of 48-4-14








Because these masks will be going on display here at the Penn Museum and will be travelling to other museums for this exhibit, it’s important to stabilize sensitive areas and prevent any further flaking. For this task, we’re using sturgeon glue (also known as isinglass). The glue is made from swim bladders (so called because they enable fish to swim) of the Russian beluga sturgeon that lives in the fresh waters of the Caspian and Black seas. Check out the size of these fish!: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUY1_i9DD4E . Ah, the conservator’s toolkit is full of fun things!

Internal Fish Anatomy from: http://www.iowas.co.uk/fish%20anatomy.html

In addition to treating these masks, we have also enjoyed looking at how they were used.  As a single mask, or even as a group, it is easy to forget that these were part of a much larger whole, a costume, a dance, and a performance.

Dancers in Antigua Guatemala on New Years Eve 2004/05
Dancers in Antigua Guatemala on New Years Eve 2004/05







These dances and masks are connected to local folk lore and history.  When examining the masks we found labels on the backs that often identified them as characters or as figures from history.  For example, one mask is labeled as being Pedro de Alvarado, a Spanish conquistador who was involved in the conquest of Guatemala, while others are princes, and even sorcerers.  We also have a mask labeled Tecun Uman, a Maya prince who fought against and was ultimately defeated by Pedro de Alvarado.

Three masks of Pedro de Alvarado (left), a Prince (center), and a sorcerer (right)

This video shows the dance of the conquest performed in Chichicastenango Guatemala, and also has interesting interviews (in Spanish) about the dance.


This video shows the dance of the conquest as well as the dance of the deer in Saquija Cahabon Guatemala.