Carving the past into the future: Museum readies mask exhibit 

by Apr 6, 2020COMMUNITY sgadugi





The Museum of the Cherokee Indian has a new cultural exhibit ready for patrons once it re-opens its doors following the COVID-19 pandemic.  “Many Faces” features the ancient art of Cherokee mask making in a modern realm and will inform visitors of this art form still practiced today by many Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians artists.  

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian has a new exhibit entitled “Many Faces” that features Cherokee masks. It will open when the Museum re-opens following the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photos courtesy of Dawn Arneach/Museum of the Cherokee Indian)

“The exhibit explores the contemporary mask culture,” said Dakota Brown, Museum of the Cherokee Indian education director.  “Not only will guests be able to see a wide variety of Cherokee masks, but we were lucky enough to be able to collect some oral histories from mask makers that we have incorporated throughout the exhibit.”  

The Museum is currently closed due to precautions over the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and Brown noted there is not a tentative date for the exhibit opening.  “As soon as the Museum is able to begin regular business hours, the exhibit will be open.”  

Incorporated into the exhibit is a workstation space where mask makers will be able to demonstrate their art for the public and speak with visitors.  “There are over 150 masks in the exhibit; a few from the Museum’s collection, but most of them were submitted by community members.  Those community members that submitted their own work or pieces of their collections made this exhibit possible.  We have almost 50 different artists represented.  Some of the makers have passed on, and their masks are probably around 100 years old.  But, our youngest maker that submitted work, is 17-years-old.”  

Brown added, “It’s beautiful to see how the mask styles have grown and developed and how each mask maker has their own styles.”  

Brown curated the exhibit with Tyra Maney, Museum cultural specialist, who noted, “Masks are a very intriguing and unique aspect of our culture.  They have been used for hundreds of years, and the tradition was almost lost in the mid-1900s.  I’m glad the tradition has continued and that visitors will be able to see the evolution of our mask culture.”  

Maney, a trained graphic designer, said, “The design process actually went fairly easily for me. Dakota and I were on the same page when it came to having a clean, modern feel to the exhibit, and I was able to carry that aesthetic into the design portions.  I see a lot of ancient and old feeling designs when it comes to various Indigenous cultures, and I wanted to showcase the Cherokee culture in a modern way.”  

She went on to say, “Masks have been here from generation to generation, but they’re still here today, and I didn’t want to represent that aspect of our culture as being in the past.  We had the idea to interview living mask makers, and Dakota and I pulled some quotes from them to use in the exhibit.  I feel like the quotes add more meaning to the masks, and my hope is that it will convey how important our masks are to visitors who have no knowledge of that part of our culture.”  

Brown said she thoroughly enjoyed working on the exhibit.  “Working on the ‘Many Faces’ exhibit has been a wonderful experience, and I have learned so many things in the two short months since we began working on it.  For me, the most rewarding part has been collecting the oral histories.”  

Dawn Arneach, Museum interim executive director, said she has been in awe of the work Brown and Maney have accomplished on the exhibit.  “Everything just fell into place for us and this mask exhibit.  Within the last six months, masks have been donated, loaned, and repatriated back to the Museum.  It just made sense that our new exhibit would feature Cherokee masks.”  

An exhibit committee was formed including Arneach; Samantha Ferguson; Museum Board chairperson; Lambert Wilson, Museum Board member; Robin Swayney, Museum genealogist; and Brown.  

“For me, watching the exhibit go from blank walls to the incredible display that people will get to see when we open back up has been an uplifting experience during this time of the pandemic,” said Arneach.  “I truly believe people will come out of the mask exhibit with a new understanding of Cherokee masks, the mask makers, and the generations that continue this art form.”  

Brown summed up the exhibit and its overall feel, “The masks are interesting, beautiful, and they seem magical somehow but talking to the makers that make them is where the true magic is.  The work they put into these is pretty amazing, and I think Cherokee people are so used to seeing them that we don’t even think about how special these masks are.  Traditionally, each mask was created for a specific ceremony.  They are art, yes, but they were meant to be used and each mask is a ceremonial object.  I would love to see Cherokee people using them again, dancing with them again, and not for tourists, but used the way they were intended.”