Art museums collect, preserve, and exhibit objects considered artistically significant according to culturally specific art historical definitions of what constitutes “art.” Therefore, art museums usually possess African objects that conform to this category, though its definition changes over time. As with anthropology and ethnography museums, many art museums in Western Europe and North America began acquiring objects from other cultures and countries through the consequences of colonialism, such as cultural contact, trade, and looting. The African objects in art museums acquired during colonialism comprise the African art canon.
Art museums typically display objects according to a theme, attributing new meanings to them. While in their original cultures many African objects are used during ceremonial performances together with music and dance, in an art museum, a silent visual experience replaces those elements.
The mask in this display belonged to Skidmore College’s collection, which transferred in 2000 to the newly established Tang Museum. Unable to find documentation about the mask in the college’s collections files, the Tang gave the object the code NAN (no accession number) 131, indicating that it was the collection’s 131st item whose records could not yet be reconciled. Information about this mask’s acquisition, provenance and journey to the Tang remains unknown.