"And to think that every time we voted for them, we silenced in us this cry ' neither gods nor master '.” Rooms of the Ethnography Museum of Geneva. I strolled daydreaming. And humming that old song of Renaud, a French singer. I was tired. I came from Rome and was waiting for my connection for Paris. This time I didn't really know why I came into the museum...
Suddenly, voices drew my attention... or breathing. Yes, it sounded like jerky, rhythmic breathing. Was it singing? How strange it was! Even stranger, it seemed that the climate was cooling as I approached the voices. My hair stood on end abruptly. Masks... They were masks...
"- Oh, a curious person! Exclaimed a mask. His face was misshapen. He had a crooked mouth and bulging eyes...
- Hello! I heard voices, so I approached... What are you singing?
- This is a vocal game, also called throat singing! Answered another mask. His hair was wound in a bun and he had a woman's voice. The first who runs out of steam and stops loses. This game is practiced by the Inuit of Quebec. Traditionally, it allowed women to enjoy themselves when the men went out to hunt. We do it to pass the time too!
- Ah... And where are you from?
- From Greenland! From Ammassalik, to be precise.
- But we are much better in this museum... Began a third mask. It had large nostrils
- What a joke! We should'nt be here, we should be with our people, the Inuit people. We are sacred for them, they use us in rituals, retorted the mask with the bun
- I agree, but do you remember these rituals? For what purpose we were used? Asked the mask with large nostrils
- Uh no…
- Neither do I... Said the deformed mask
- This is normal. You're younger.
- I don't know why... But I know they need us! Insisted the mask with the bun
- No, it's better here, it's warm!
- I don't think so, we are never better than with the people who have created us!
- My grandmother once told me that they could burn us or abandon us in the tundra at the end of a ceremony... What abject end! Complained the deformed mask
- On the contrary, I think it's a good reason to die, if we are sacred for them... said the mask with the bun
- But what are you talking about? It's nonsense! Raged the mask with big nostrils. Inuit have always used us to entertain during community gatherings, nothing more! We are theater props, toys, that's it!
- Yes but hey, I find it's sad that we have forgotten our sacred function... We lost the memory of our origins!
- How is it possible? I asked
- Certainly the Christianization, in the late nineteenth century, have put an end to several practices... Replied the deformed mask
- No, this is the museum that made us forget everything! Anyway, sacred objects or theater objects, we would be better in Greenland, said the mask with the bun
- No mask remembers?? I asked, surprised.
- I don't know... Maybe…. If you want to know, ask the mask of the Moon at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. Him, he certainly remembers, he's very powerful. "
And they began to sing... uh, play!
What a strange encounter! This discussion was of great interest to me. I never asked myself what could be the consequences of admission to the museum of works, removed from their original context of use... Today, these masks no longer know why they were made... yet they still know where they come from. Perhaps others have forgotten their roots? It's horrible! I just was the witness of a debate on the damage caused by the museum... damage to both the works and the people (s)! What were these famous rituals? I had to know. I decided to go to the Quai Branly Museum on my return in Paris.
Émile, the small heritage rat
About the museum and Inuit from Greenland:
About throat singing :
Masks, Angmagssalik, Greenland, wood, Inuit © Ethnography Museum, Geneva
*Claude Lévi-Strauss, La voie des masques, Pocket, 2004 (first edition: 1975, Skira)

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