British Museum blog

The spirit of Mexico’s Day of the Dead

Laura Osorio Sunnucks, Project Curator, British Museum

In Mexico, on 1 and 2 November, which fall on the Roman Catholic Church’s All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days respectively, the spirits of the dead are invited into the world of the living. At home and in cemeteries, the family and friends of these spirits make offerings of fragrant marigolds, pine resin incense, food, drink and light. Unsure of direction, time or space, the smells and colours help to lead the spirits home.

Families and friends will usually also provide the food and drink enjoyed by the person when they were alive. A sweet bread, called pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and food or drinks made from maize, a central component of Mexican diet, are among other traditional gifts. Home altars are decorated creatively, perhaps with coloured tissue paper and garlands, while markets are flooded
with seasonal flowers and sugar skulls.

Cemetery offering of candles, marigolds and incense. (Photo: Altar: Antonio Olmos)

Cemetery offering of candles, marigolds and incense. (Photo: Altar: Antonio Olmos)

The Day of the Dead is not a static tradition. Celebrated diversely across the country, it is multi-faceted, evolving and personal. From 30 October until 2 November the British Museum will celebrate the Day of the Dead with a free festival, supported by BP and in association with the Government of Mexico as part of 2015: Year of Mexico in the UK. Designed as a fully immersive experience, this Mexican tradition will be honoured with a series of events that will focus on performance, participation and dialogue. One of the central display features will be Betsabeé Romero’s conceptual altar and intervention in the Great Court. Dedicated to migrants worldwide, this hanging installation captures the importance of the Days of the Dead in Mexico. The artist has reduced her palette to the colours traditionally associated with this festival: pink, purple, orange and white. These symbolise celebration, mourning, the life-giving properties of the sun and purity. Paper banners, printed with images of figures moving by foot and by boat, framed with barbed wire, are perhaps a reference to the many Mexicans who die crossing the USA/Mexico border. Romero not only explores the contemporary politics of migration, but also its heritage as a vehicle of cultural contact and exchange. The sharing and blending of beliefs and practices through the movement of peoples, images, objects and ideas, is at the core of the Day of the Dead festival, which contains elements from pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican and European religious practice.

contemporary art installation based on a Day of the Dead altar.

Betsabeé Romero’s contemporary art installation based on a Day of the Dead altar.

Another participative installation invites visitors to leave a message or flower for their deceased loved ones on trees. These trees stand on a page from the Tepetlaoztoc Codex (from the British Museum’s collection), a painted book written in the 1500s by the inhabitants of Tepetlaoztoc, a town near Lake Texcoco in modern-day Central Mexico. The image shows four feather crests (penachos) crowned with cactus leaves. Beneath one of these crests is a gaping mouth, an ancient symbol representing a cave. In pre-Hispanic and colonial Mexico, locations were often described using geographical features and Tepetlaoztoc derives from the Nahuatl words for stone-mat cave. Shown as being born from trees, earth, rivers and caves, rulers were connected to the sacred landscape. Caves were sites of ritual practice and often burial places, as they were linked with the transition between cosmological spheres, such as the world of the living and that of the dead. Trees were also important metaphors in Mesoamerican iconography, symbolising strength, growth, genealogy and the earth’s fertility. Pictorial manuscripts often depict rulers gaining legitimacy for their power by communicating with community ancestors in the sacred landscape, marked by trees and caves.

The Tepetlaoztoc Codex. Pre-Columbian Mexico, 16th century. 21.5 x 29.5 cm. British Museum Am2006,Drg.13964

The Tepetlaoztoc Codex. Pre-Columbian Mexico, 16th century. 21.5 x 29.5 cm. British Museum Am2006,Drg.13964

These interventions, alongside the Museum’s permanent collection of ancient to modern objects from around the world, can create a deep understanding of diversity. Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead in order to remember their deceased loved ones and, as such, the festival is necessarily poignant and personal. It is with this tenderness for humanity that we can engage with the personal history behind all of the objects in the Museum’s collection, which represent our world heritage.

The Days of the Dead Festival is on at the British Museum from 30 October to 2 November 2015
Supported by BP
In association with the Government of Mexico
as part of 2015: Year of Mexico in the UK

Filed under: At the Museum, , , , , , , ,

Museum of the world, for the World Cup

David Francis, Interpretation Officer

With the World Cup Final nearly upon us, I thought it would be interesting to search through the British Museum collection and see what footballing-related treasures could be unearthed. The Museum does not specifically set out to collect football-related objects; that remit falls to the National Football Museum in Manchester. However, the prevalence of objects related to football in the collection reflects the popularity of the sport, both in our current time and as part of our cultural heritage.

Greenstone yoke mould with relief carving in the form of a toad. Used to shape the protective leather belts worn by players of the Mesoamerican ballgame. From Veracruz, Mexico, AD 300-1200 (AOA Am,St.398)

Greenstone yoke mould with relief carving in the form of a toad. Used to shape the protective leather belts worn by players of the Mesoamerican ballgame. From Veracruz, Mexico, AD 300-1200 (AOA Am,St.398)

The story begins with objects related to ancient team ball games that had independently evolved in different parts of the world that act as football’s great ancestral forefathers. These include the Chinese game cuju and its Japanese equivalent kemari. However, the world’s earliest known team game, and perhaps most famous, is the Central American ball game, represented in the British Museum by the ceremonial ball game belt.

Like football, using your hands was prohibited in the ball game, but players were also restricted from using their feet or heads. Only the buttocks, forearms and the hips were allowed to touch the ball. To protect their hips from the rubber ball, which was heavy and could weigh as much as 15kg, players would wear padded belts made of cloth or basket work. The Museum’s stone version of the belt is thought to have been worn in ceremonies associated with the ball game. Points were scored through a system of faults such as if the ball left the court, or if it touched a prohibited part of the body. In many ways the ball game resembled keepy uppy rather than the modern game of football.

Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s famously said ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death …. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ His quote would have been more appropriate, however, if he’d been talking about the Central American ball game. Whereas in modern football a major penalty miss can result in a hate campaign from the tabloids, mistakes in the ballgame could be even more costly. Reliefs exist depicting the participants of the ball game being sacrificed after a match and some scholars think that playing the game was believed to be linked to the rising and setting of the sun.

Isaac Robert Cruikshank, print, 1825

Isaac Robert Cruikshank, print, 1825

The game at Football, satirical print

The game at Football, satirical print published by Matthew Darly. A sailor (left) has just kicked a Spanish don whom he holds by the hair; he looks towards another sailor and says, ‘Damme Jack lets have a game of football’. The Spaniard wears a cloak, slashed doublet, and spurred boots. His broken sword falls to the ground. The other sailor (right) stands with his arms folded, saying, ‘With all my heart, kick him up Tom’. 17 March [?]1780. (1868,0808.4587.+)

The Museum’s collection of prints and drawings also provides many 19th- and 20th-century depictions of the game. A print by Isaac Robert Cruikshank from about 1825, depicting a melee of jovial soldiers, some trampled beneath the feet of the mob that pursue the ball, captures the wildness of the game before it was formerly codified in London in 1863. Another print from 1780 depicting two English sailors kicking a Spanish lord around as a football, reinforces the link between footballers and violence. This association harks back to English football’s medieval origins when it was a game played en masse as part of Shrovetide celebrations and frequently banned by the authorities as a threat to civil order.

Paul Nash, Football game, illustration to 'Cotswold Characters' by John Drinkwater, Brush drawing in black ink, over graphite (1970,0919.89)

Paul Nash, Football game, illustration to ‘Cotswold Characters’ by John Drinkwater, Brush drawing in black ink, over graphite (1970,0919.89)

In stark contrast are the later modernist depictions of football in the collection, such as a 1921 Paul Nash illustration from John Drinkwater’s ‘Cotswold Characters’. Here, the players are faceless mannequins and the focus is instead on the dynamism of the spherical ball as it moves through a series of geometric rectangles beyond the outstretched arm of the diving goalkeeper. The print freezes the image at the crucial moment that the ball crosses the line, which would nowadays be captured by goal line technology. Although the print depicts a game in the rural Cotswolds, its depiction of the athleticism of the players and the skill and excitement of the game reflects the transition from football being viewed as a violent rabble to a professionalised sport.

Openwork 'football' made of rattan, in six strands. From Burma (As1981,Q.21)

Openwork ‘football’ made of rattan, in six strands. From Burma (As1981,Q.21)

Model group in the form of a skeleton football match (Mexico v Brazil). Inspired by Day of the Dead Festival. Mexico, 1980s. (Am1986,06.271)

Model group in the form of a skeleton football match (Mexico v Brazil). Inspired by Day of the Dead Festival. Mexico, 1980s. (Am1986,06.271)

Finally, within the Museum there is also an eclectic bunch of footballing paraphernalia and related objects that when combined creates a cabinet of curiosities of the beautiful game. These include a football woven from rattan palm stems from Burma, a nickel-chrome referee’s stop watch in the horological collections, and a Mexican model from the 1986 World Cup depicting an imaginary encounter between the Brazilian and Mexican sides as Day of the Dead skeletons. Here are objects that were not intended to last forever now preserved within the Museum for all time, waiting for a scholar of football and material culture to unearth them and unlock their secrets.

British Museum Football Club 1919-20

British Museum Football Club 1919-20

British Museum Football Club 2013 (author centre, back row)

British Museum Football Club 2013 (author centre, back row)

David Francis is a dependable, if unspectacular, right-back for the British Museum football team. The team plays in an annual tournament with others from across London, including the National Gallery, the White Cube and Tate. The current team is only the latest in a rich lineage of footballing talent, as can be seen in the photograph from the Archives of the 1919–20 season.

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This envelope, with a colourful design on its front and a red background and reverse, is typical of the 1990s and early 21st century. On the front is a traditional sailing boat, or junk, sailing on a calm sea with just a few clouds high in the sky. The four characters written on the main sail wish for 'the wind in your sails'. This phrase is used as a general wish for good luck, but is especially used to wish 'Bon Voyage' to someone setting out on a journey. There are five other good luck wishes on the front, all presented as though stamped images from a carved seal. They wish for peace and calm, wind in your sails, a wonderful future, abundance and profit. Wishing everyone a happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai The inscription on this tall red envelope translates as 'Good luck in all you wish for!' Above the inscription are illustrations of three objects representing traditional forms of money in China, and a ruyi sceptre. The traditional forms of money include spade money, a coin with a square hole in the middle, and a small silver ingot. Unlike real coins, the spade and coin carry good luck wishes: 'good luck' (on the spade) 'in all you wish for' (on the coin).The ruyi sceptre also conveys a wish for good luck as ruyi means 'all you wish for'. Happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai Happy #ChineseNewYear! These are called xiao hongbao, literally translated as 'little red envelopes'. Red is the colour associated with celebration in China. In the 1990s, a new style of money envelope appeared. Although it still had a red back, the front was printed in many colours and overstamped in gold. On this envelope there are lush peony flowers in full bloom. They are symbolic of spring, as well as feminine beauty, love and affection. In Chinese, the peony is known as mudanhua or fuguihua. The characters fu ('wealth') and gui ('honour') appear frequently in good luck wishes, and pictures of peony flowers add strength to the wish. The inscription on this envelope reads 'May wealth and honour blossom, in abundance year after year'. The arrangement of the peonies and the inscription is reminiscent of traditional Chinese flower painting. #GongXiFaCai We welcome nearly 7 million visitors a year to the Museum and this photo by @zoenorfolk wonderfully captures the movement of people around the Great Court. Completed in 2000, the Great Court also features a quote by Tennyson: 'and let thy feet millenniums hence be set in the midst of knowledge...’
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Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum In 2000, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court designed by Foster and Partners transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. We love this striking photo by @adders77 showing this incredible space at night #regram #repost
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum This wonderful photo by @what_fran_saw captures the stunning Great Court #regram #repost
The two-acre space of the Great Court is enclosed by a spectacular glass roof made of 3,312 unique pieces!
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