While we make Andover Figures manikins at Museum Textile Services for a variety of historic costume, some garments require an entirely different approach. One look at this large, heavy, beautiful, and multi-material African costume confirms its special display needs. Called an Egun, the bright and visually energetic costume was commissioned in 2015 for the permanent collection at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. After surface cleaning and documenting this complicated garment, our challenge was to make a safe and sturdy storage/exhibition mount.
Egungun are costumes worn in masquerades, religious festivals, and funeral services in Yoruba culture. The Wheaton Egun was made in Benin specifically for the college's permanent collection, but many West African countries produce similar masquerade and religious garments. Seeing this type of costume in motion is really the best way to understand how it works. Around minute 1:45 of the video below, you can see the first of many Benin Egun of similar construction to the one we recently conserved.
The dancing of the performers is particularly impressive considering these richly decorated garments weigh about 60 pounds. As seen in the video, the performer looks through a loosely woven mesh, covered by cowrie shells, and each costume is decorated and constructed in a unique hand-crafted fashion. The wearer’s entire body is covered during the performance. The under-garment of the Wheaton Egun is a deep indigo blue jumpsuit that covers the performer from the head to the fingertips and down over the toes. A pair of matched decorated shoes completes the costume. Looking out from under the hanging panels at the top is a stylized wooden face, painted bright yellow.
Conservators Camille Breeze, Morgan Carbone, Megan Creamer and Cara Jordan built a custom mount that resembles a small table inside a plastic crate. Due to space limitations, the mount measures just 55 inches tall--shorter than the dancer who wore it. Made of poplar plywood wood wrapped in Tyvek, the galvanized reinforcements and bolts allow the mount to be easily disassembled, or affixed to a platform for exhibition. Two Ethafoam crescents on top of the mount cushion and balance the heavy wooden disk, much as it would have been balanced on a dancer's back or head. The costume has nearly two dozen fabric panels, each of which we padded with archival polyfelt and rolled to fit on the base of the mount. The enclosure consists of corrugated polypropylene panels connected to the base with Velcro, and a removable Tyvek cover. The base of the mount is bolted to a dolly for easier transport.
For more historic context, take a look at the historic visual culture of Benin and much older Egungun costumes in the online collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.