From Personal Protection to Personal Statement

The ROM’s newest collection highlights how facemasks have become symbols of social, economic, and artistic expression

As the novel coronavirus swept across the globe last year, facemasks offered the first line of defense. With supplies for disposable PPE running low, corporations and individuals both turned to creating custom masks—at first to help meet shortages in healthcare supply, and later to meet general demand. Over the course of the pandemic, these masks have evolved from being merely functional to becoming objects of self-expression and social demonstration.

Paper-mâché warrior mask. Supergirl and Superman masks by JonnyMask of Toronto. Mask by Life Is Black, Black Lives Matter.

Left: Paper-mâché warrior mask made by Chhau artisans of Seraikela, Jharkand, eastern India. These allow Chhau dancers to continue their performances of re-enacting ancient Hindu epics during the pandemic. Middle: Supergirl and Superman masks, a fun and evocative way to conquer COVID-19, by Toronto designer, Jonny Daring, creator of JonnyMask. Daring's brand was born out of necessity to protect himself and his 6-year-old daughter, and later grew to cater to public demand. Right: Black Lives Matter mask by California-based brand Life Is Black, protesting systemic racism and police brutality after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Proceeds from sales donated to "The Bail Project" to help protestors who were arrested for using their voices to make change.

During the first lockdown in 2020, ROM curators Fahmida Suleman, Sarah Fee, and Alexandra Palmer initiated a rapid response to collecting COVID-19 masks from around the world for the ROM. The Museum’s collection of non-medical facemasks presents a snapshot of the global response to the pandemic in the form of meaningful social, economic, artistic, and cultural expressions. Many masks are handcrafted by craftspeople and designers reliant on tourism who pivoted their businesses by making facemasks to continue earning a living and to promote the wearing of face covers in the fight against the virus.

These objects attest to the power of artistic ingenuity and human creativity in the face of a global crisis.

Curators Alexandra Palmer and Fahmida Suleman take us behind the scenes to look at the ROM’s collection of facemasks. Courtesy of CBC News: The National.