Concerns about an outbreak of novel coronavirus have seen demand for protective surgical masks soar in Taiwan. But while they’ve rarely received so much attention up until now, these humble masks have been with us in Taiwan for around a century now, through big events and gradual social changes alike.
One museum here has turned the recent mask-mania into an opportunity for a mask-themed lesson on Taiwan’s history.
Coronavirus fears have sent demand for protective masks soaring. It may feel unprecedented, but for the National Museum of Taiwan History, this is just another chapter in a story that goes back 100 years.
Taiwan’s first protective masks appeared in the 1920’s, when the island was ruled as a Japanese colony. A colonial-era flier in the museum’s collection recommends that people wear masks during an outbreak of meningitis. In the final years of Japanese rule, as WWII raged, gas masks also appeared in Taiwan.
During the 1970’s, as scooters became common but Taiwan remained agricultural, masks took on new roles. A ‘70’s advertisement from the collection says masks keep out exhaust from scooters and pesticide fumes.
By the ‘80’s, gauze masks had caught on. But a famous 1982 bank robbery made it clear that there should be limits on where they can be worn.
Medical-grade N95 masks became big after the 2003 SARS outbreak. And surgical masks took center-stage again during the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement, this time as a tool of protest. Demonstrators attached a character for “anger” on the front.
As masks come back into the spotlight, the museum has taken to Facebook to show just how long they have played a role in Taiwanese life.