Gallery of the Day: Performance & Lives

November 24, 2011


Performance and Lives is one of the first floor atrium galleries in the World Cultures block:

Music, sounds and performance are important to people’s lives all over the world. Sounds and rhythm are at the centre of ceremonies and performances, from community festivals to sacred rituals. The costumes, masks and musical instruments that are part of performance reflect long long-held traditions, but also reveal how contemporary makers, musicians and performers reinterpret traditions from their own times. (gallery intro panel)

The dazzling collection of masks actually on display is certainly a big highlight of the gallery, including a Venice carnival mask, Japanese No mask and Sri Lankan demon mask among its finest exhibits.  The section ‘Masks and Performance’ looks at how wearers are transformed by their masks, while ‘People and Performance’ takes a wider look at fancy dress parades and masquerades. ‘Sacred Performance’ brings together dance, costume, music and song in spiritual traditions and rituals, with some very colourful skeleton costumes from the Tibetan Buddhist dance Cham.

Music and sound are the other big focus of the gallery. ‘Sacred Sounds’ looks at how sound is used to mark a time and space as sacred, e.g. by ringing a bell, humming or chanting, while ‘Resounding World’ looks at the physical and emotional presence of sound through sounds that we hear every day, such as our alarm clock in the morning, the rattling of train wheels on our way to work, or a lullaby at night time. In a similar vein, ‘Rhythmic World’ focuses on sounds and rhythms that are part of our everyday lives, e.g. to calm a baby or make a repetitive task go more quickly. ‘Sounds That Travel’ combines both instruments that travel physically, i.e. that are designed to be portable, as well as sounds that travel through sound waves, e.g. bagpipes across a battle field, a call to prayer from a Mosque tower, or an echo. Finally, ‘Music Making’ looks at how people bring music to life e.g. by making musical instruments or composing tunes, but also by passing down their knowledge and traditions from generation to generation or simply by listening to a performance.

Click on the thumbnails to view the images in full size.


  • Dancing skeleton costume from Tibet
  • Mask of Ravanna, worn in an Indian dance-battle
  • Japanese No mask
  • Venice carnival mask
  • Victor Gamma contemporary instruments

Things to do

One of the gallery’s main target audience is young people, and there are lots of interactive things to get involved with such as:

  • Step into some colourful masks and have your photo taken
  • Compose your own world music on touch screens with sound clips of instruments from around the world – you can also access the interactive via the museum website, or email yourself the composition from your visit and continue editing it from home
  • Use the Musical Journeys touch screens to explore the world music collection of NMS, listen to vocal and instrumental recordings,and follow in the footsteps of Jean Jenkins who collected many of the instruments in this gallery – you can browse by sounds or countries, e.g. milking songs from Mongolia, a wedding preparation poetry song from Jordan, or talking drums from Nigeria
  • Play some contemporary musical instruments built by Victor Gamma
  • Watch the two films about the Tibetan Buddhist ritual dance Cham and and African masked performance.


* Please note that these are my own personal highlights and not necessarily recommended as such by the museum.

Dancing skeleton costume from Tibet

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