Crocodile dance mask
from the Torres
Strait Islands

11 August – 16 October 2011

Exhibition closed

Room 3

The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Objects in focus

Supported by

This fearsome crocodile mask was worn as part of ‘death dances’ and other ceremonies and celebrations in the central Torres Strait Islands, north of mainland Australia.

Dance is a powerful expression of Torres Strait Island culture, and masks form an important symbolic and dramatic element of performances. This display recreates the atmosphere of a night dance, in which performers appeared one after the other, their movements and elaborate costumes illuminated by a blazing fire.

The crocodile mask was made in the 1880s from local wood, turtle shell, and feathers. The addition of metal saw blades for the crocodile’s teeth shows the influx of new materials and technology to the islands at the time. The maker was an important leader named Maino. His friendship with Alfred Cort Haddon, the researcher who collected the mask, is also explored in the display.

This highly significant mask was created at a time of great change. However, Torres Strait Islanders still create masks and choreograph new dances as part of a continuing cultural tradition. This is a unique opportunity to experience the culture of the central Torres Strait Islands, past and present.

Crocodile dance mask

Crocodile dance mask. Made of wood, hawksbill turtle-shell, cuscus fur, metal saw blades, cassowary feathers, and coloured glass beads. From the Torres Strait Islands, north of mainland Australia, 1880s.


Conservation of the mask

In preparation for the exhibition, there was some essential conservation that needed to be done to the crocodile mask. British Museum conservators Monika Harter, Rachel Berridge and Hazel Gardiner worked for several weeks to ensure the mask was in good enough condition to be safely put on display.

One of the key intentions of the conservation was to preserve the original materials so that the visitor can interpret and appreciate the object in the way it was originally intended.

As part of the conservation process, changes made to the object throughout its history are also noted and preserved as evidence of its story. Examples of this are tooth marks left on the mask by the wearer’s attempts to hold it in place. This kind of change to the object informs us as to how the object was used.

This slideshow (right) details the conservation of feathers that feature on the crocodile mask.

the mask before restoration
  • 1

    The mask needed careful conservation before it could be put on display. Accumulated dust was removed, metal corrosion reduced, pangium seed rattles were re-attached and plant leaves and cordage stabilised. The following images describe cleaning and repair of the feathers.

  • 2

    Feathers had become misshapen, bent or broken. Those cut in this decorative pattern were most affected, because their split shafts are very vulnerable.

  • 3

    Cleaning and reshaping was carried out by submersion in an aqueous solution and by gentle brushing with a soft brush.

  • 4

    When removing the now wet and heavy feathers from the bath, a sheet of polyester film served as support.

  • 5

    First the feathers were dried between pieces of blotting paper and then under a gentle, cool airflow.

  • 6

    Once dry, further reshaping or ‘preening’ was done manually, cautiously shaping the feather vanes between two fingers.

  • 7

    Breaks were repaired using splinters prepared from shafts of new feathers and adhered with an adhesive that can be easily removed in the future.

  • 8

    This is the feather after treatment.

  • 9

    The coconut wood that serves as holding device for the feathers was crumbling. It had to be strengthened with a dilute adhesive before the feathers could be put back.

  • 10

    At last the feathers were returned to their original location on the mask.

  • 11

    The mask after treatment was completed.