If you walk through the new special exhibition at Moesgaard Museum, ‘On the steppes of Genghis Khan – Mongolia’s nomads’, you will notice that the mannequins on which the beautiful shaman garbs or the women’s dresses are displayed, are not just any old mannequins. They each have a unique look, indeed a unique personality; in fact, they look very much like real people.
There is a very good reason for that: the mannequins’ faces are in fact life masks, taken by ethnographer and archaeologist Werner Jacobsen during the Second Danish Expedition to Central Asia (1938-39). Jacobsen was ordered by Henning Haslund-Christensen to make life masks of nine assistants, who helped the exploring researchers on their travels through Mongolia. The life masks would later be used as casts to create the mannequins, which would be used to display the unique collection brought home from the exhibitions. In her book on the collection, anthropologist Christel Braae cites a letter, Jacobsen wrote to his parents: “With great difficulty we managed to take nine masks […] they will be tremendously valuable when the costumes are mounted” (Braae 2017:163). And indeed he was right. To this day, the Mongolian collection is displayed on mannequins with the faces of Jacobsen’s and Haslund-Christensen’s assistants. For many years, they stood in the National Museum’s ethnographic exhibition and now for a limited time at Moesgaard Museum.
The legacy that these assistants – a role, which in so much research is underplayed – brings to the collection is immense. They provide a human face to the collection. When you stand in front of them, and look into their eyes, they seem to come alive; and so does the clothes they wear.
Sculptor Bodil Hornemann used the life masks to create the very life-like faces you see in the images above. And the masks and the mannequins were themselves incorporated into the collections as artefacts, along with all the ethnographic artefacts that was brought to Denmark by the expedition. Thus, the faces of the assistants will never be forgotten, as long as the National Museum of Denmark exists.
And as long as they are here at Moesgaard, I will visit them often, look into their eyes, and try to imagine who they are, and the journey they have taken to get here.
Do you want to know more about the wonderful Mongolian collections? Visit the exhibition ‘On the steppes of Genghis Khan – Mongolia’s nomads’ at Moesgaard Museum, or read Christel Braae’s fascinating and richly illustrated book Among Herders of Inner Mongolia: The Haslund-Christensen Collection at the National Museum of Denmark (2017).
Photo credit on main images: Foto/medie Moesgaard Museum – Søren Vestergaard