In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of most (if not all) international museums in
response to public safety and health measures. ICOM Costume Committee conceived the
project of a virtual exhibition of face masks to maintain connections between museum
professionals and the public, as well as to encourage the collection, interpretation, and display
of objects related to this pivotal moment in time. Museums in Europe, Asia, Africa, North
America, and Oceania were invited to join this effort, spearheaded by the Royal Ontario
Museum (Toronto, Canada), the organizational lead. The face mask has become the iconic
symbol of the pandemic, representing humanity’s resilience, community, and unity during this
global tragedy. This virtual exhibition highlights the importance of museum collections as
sources of inspiration that embrace current events and celebrate contemporary fashion and
design. Freely accessible to visitors around the world, the exhibition presents masks that
document key moments of contemporary history and capture the united global challenge
against the virus, which will resonate for years to come.
The virtual exhibition was financed by a grant from the ICOM Costume Solidarity Project,
Clothing the Pandemic: Resiliency, Community & Unity Expressed Through an International
Collaboration of the COVID-19 Facemask Project. Other elements of the project included the
online workshop Documenting the Material Culture of the Pandemic: Strategies and Challenges,
and a conference resulting in a set of online resources to assist others to make collections of
their own and to provide pedagogical resources for educators in order to discuss the pandemic
through these international collections.
Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore
These masks from Singapore, Asia and the Asian diaspora reflect ACM’s ‘Asia in Fashion’ approach of collecting Asia’s impact on global fashion. The emphasis is on cross-cultural, pan-Asian connections beyond national boundaries; including contemporary designs that embrace heritage and our collection strengths, such as batik and Peranakan Chinese fashion.
The British Museum, London, England
The British Museum began collecting COVID-19 objects with the support of our international networks and colleagues, to create a global narrative enabling us to show future generations how people and societies, across the world and in UK, responded to this historic crisis. Interweaving cultural references past and present, these objects were to build upon and complement the Museum’s current existing collections conveying a wide range of perspectives and stories about the pandemic.
Budapest History Museum / Kiscell Museum, Budapest, Hungary
The Budapest History Museum – Kiscelli Múzeum collects the historical objects of the capital of Hungary. In 2020 we made an announcement on our website and social media in 2020 to collect objects related to the pandemic. People sent and brought masks, flags, prints, and other objects to the museum. In addition, the curator of the textile collection asked for donations from Hungarian designers who responded to the pandemic by sewing masks instead of clothes.
Centraal Museum, Utrecht, Netherlands
The Centraal Museum in Utrecht is over 180 years old and has a broad and comprehensive collection. It consists of modern and contemporary art, design, fashion, urban history, old art, and applied art. Objects relate to different periods and have an international reach or a current perspective. This COVID-19 period is being collected by purchasing and saving several objects, such as distance blocks and face masks made by different designers or artists, both local and (inter)national. Face masks symbolise this zeitgeist in particular.
MUCEM, Marseille, France
At a time when at the beginning of the 21st century, half of the world's population has lived under lockdown, no one can deny that we were going through an unprecedented period, which is turning our lives upside down. As a museum of the contemporary and the everyday, it was impossible for the Mucem not to cast its eye on this exceptional situation and, as such, has called for the participation of those who wanted to support it to collect traces of these extraordinary times. The Mucem has collected more than 600 testimonials describing in an intimate way the way in which individuals have adapted to the situation.
Musée Théodore Monod d’Art Africain IFAN-CAD, Dakar, Senegal
We started our collection after the ICOM Costume Committee contacted us about this virtual exhibition project on masks. When the COVID-19 pandemic began in Senegal, there was a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment masks (PPE). This is why local artisans and tailors decided to use their creativity and technical knowledge to make cheap and alternative (non-medical) protective masks in order to overcome this lack of supply and to compete with imported masks from China. We have collected a small sample of masks. They are becoming scarce as virus cases are going down.
Museo Kordilyera, Baguio, Philippines
The Cordillera Textiles Project (CORDITEX) of the University of the Philippines Baguio is an interdisciplinary research team and has built a network of weavers around the Cordillera region of Northern Luzon. When the pandemic came, local weavers were unable to sell their textiles due to the lockdown and reached out to the team to help them market their handwoven facemasks. The CORDITEX and the Museo Kordilyera organized an artisanal market to help our local weavers, and from there the museum collected these masks from the provinces and the others were solicited from local weavers around the Philippines.
Museu del Disseny de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
The masks from Museu del Disseny de Barcelona are part of a new collection formed during the pandemic in 2020 and displayed in the temporary exhibition ‘Emergency! Design to combat COVID-19’ held in Barcelona and Madrid. The collection represents the many solutions that the design sector offered during a health emergency situation, and includes a range of protective elements such as masks, clinical machinery, such as respirator, and communicative graphics for information campaigns.
The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, USA
The Museum at FIT acquired masks because of their social and cultural importance during the COVID-19 pandemic. They will be featured in an exhibition about fashion accessories.
National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland
National Museums Scotland's approach to collecting COVID-19 has focused on a range of themes – cutting across social, medical, military, design and global histories – reflecting both the all-encompassing effects of the pandemic and the multi-disciplinary nature of the organization. The focus has been on representing a broad but focused selection of material, from highly visual objects clearly linked to the virus, such as face masks, vaccine vials and social-distancing signage, to objects that tell social and cultural histories of the pandemic from regional and local perspectives within Scotland and across the world.
Rose Fashion and Textile Archive, Ramat Gan, Israel
On 7 April 2020 a law was passed that demanded all citizens of Israel wear face masks to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. Since then, face masks became an overnight must, and are everywhere and on everyone. Mask makers reacted very fast, creating various kinds of masks to meet different needs. Recognizing the importance of masks, not only as medical devices but also as unique aesthetic phenomena, the Archive collected masks that tell stories of technologically innovative fabrics and creativity in Israel.
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada
The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) closed its doors on 14 March 2020, following the province of Ontario guidelines, and Canada went into lockdown to fight COVID-19. By May, Canadian health experts recommended the public wear non-medical masks for personal protection and the urgency of wearing face masks gained speed. ROM curators Sarah Fee, Alexandra Palmer, and Fahmida Suleman sought to document history in real time by collecting the creative responses of mask makers from around the world. Masks became the new T-shirt for personal, political, and social expression. Many were collected early on, reflecting makers’ quick and resourceful pivoting to this new fashion accessory. Masks acquired in 2021 reflect artists’ and designers’ evolving reflections and responses. Together, the team collected over 250 masks representing 23 countries, privileging makers who supported social causes. A selection of 100 pandemic masks is featured in the ROM exhibition, ‘Unmasking the Pandemic: From Personal Protection to Personal Expression’ (18 September 2021 – 21 February 2022).
Museum of New Zeaand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand
Te Papa’s face masks are part of a wider collection relating to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific. The mask collection has been developed by a cross-curatorial team to reflect different cultural and design responses to the pandemic and mask-wearing, something which was not a socialized practice in New Zealand prior to COVID-19.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England
Curator Mariam Rosser-Owen is collecting masks within the framework of a small project she is calling 'pandemic crafts'. This has grown from a research and collecting project she has been conducting since 2015, supported by an Art Fund New Collecting Award, to collect contemporary craft from North Africa. Using the remaining funds, she proposed to acquire contemporary crafts from across the Middle East (not just limited to North Africa in this case) that gave a material expression to the COVID-19 pandemic. She is not restricting herself to masks, but all her initial acquisitions have been masks or artworks based on the mask, which has become the iconic object of the pandemic.
Westminster Menswear Archive, London, England
In April 2020, we began collecting COVID-19-related Personal Protective Equipment masks (PPE) and face masks. Our focus is on British menswear and manufacturers, including designer brands sold in the UK. We now have around 93 different face coverings in our collection. We became interested in how the manufacturing industry responded to the need for PPE and how designers integrated masks into their production.