The British Museum has a collection of more than 3,000 historically-significant masks. Not in the collection though is one of the most recognizable British masks of our time: the Guy Fawkes mask. A key member of the conspiracy behind the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a plan to destroy the House of Lords and assassinate King James I, Fawkes is remembered on Guy Fawkes Night celebrations in the UK and the man himself has become something of a folk hero. Of course, Guy Fawkes masks—based on the style seen in the "V for Vendetta" comic—are a favorite of hacker group Anonymous and protesters around the globe. So why isn't this iconic mask in the British Museum? From Atlas Obscura:
[Masks: the Art of Expression author John] Mac thinks that the way the museum's departments are organized might explain why there is no Guy Fawkes mask to be found there, not even lurking in the basement. With curator responsibilities divided into geographic areas, says Mac, "there's no single curator overseeing the extensive mask collection. Because of this, blind spots develop."
Head of collection management at the British Museum, David Packer, feels differently. "I definitely wouldn't say it's a blind spot, but masks aren't particularly associated with Britain, except for gas and plague masks."
Packer adds: "The British Museum doesn't feel it needs to be exhaustive in terms of contemporary culture, or of Great Britain at large." However, the collection does include contemporary pieces, such as store-bought plastic Halloween masks from Veracruz, Mexico, and two hand-crafted COVID masks from Burma. "Curators have broad creative discretion, and we trust that they know what would benefit their part of the collection," says Packer. "A Guy Fawkes mask has never been acquired because our curator for Britain never saw a need in the collection to include one."
Rather than an oversight or some conspiracy, Packer sees a very simple explanation for the lack of a single Guy Fawkes mask, despite its historical significance, in the venerable institution's inventory. There aren't many notable or collectible Guy Fawkes masks from the last 400 years, says Packer, because "nearly all of them have gone up in smoke. Guy Fawkes is about ritual destruction. That's the whole point of it."