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 week we’re highlighting the work of our #AfricanRockArt image project. The project team are now in the third year of cataloguing, and have uploaded around 19,000 digital photographs of rock art from all over #Africa to the Museum’s collection online database.

This photograph shows an engraving of a large, almost life-sized elephant, found on the Messak Plateau in #Libya. This region is home to tens of thousands of depictions, and is best known for larger-than-life-size engravings of animals such as elephants, rhino and a now extinct species of buffalo. This work of rock art most likely comes from the Early Hunter Period and could be up to 12,000 years old.

Follow the link in our bio and explore 30,000 years of stunning rock art from Africa. Watch the incredible discovery of this colossal statue, submerged under the sea of thousands of years. This colossal 5.4-metre statue of Hapy was discovered underwater in what was the thriving and cosmopolitan seaport of Thonis-Heracleion. It once stood in front of a temple and would have been an impressive sight for traders and visitors arriving from the Mediterranean.

Come face to face with the ancient Egyptian god Hapy for yourself in our‪ #SunkenCities exhibition, until 27 November 2016.

Colossal statue of Hapy. Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt. About 380-250 BC. Maritime Museum, Alexandria. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. The discovery of this stela, which once stood at the entrance of the main entry port into ancient Egypt, was an extraordinary moment. Its inscription detailing taxes helped solve a 2,000-year-old mystery!

This magnificent monument was crucial to revealing that Thonis (in Egyptian) and Heracleion (in Greek) were in fact the same city. The decree was issued by the pharaoh Nectanebo I, regarding the taxation of goods passing through the cities of Thonis and Naukratis, and it originally stood in the Temple of Amun-Gereb. The inscription states that this slab stood at the mouth of the ‘Sea of the Greeks’ (the Mediterranean) in Thonis.

A bilingual decree found in 1881 refers in its Greek inscription to ‘the Temple of Heracleion’ and in hieroglyphs to ‘the Temple of Amun-Gereb’. Together these objects revealed that Thonis and Heracleion were the same place.

Learn more about the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece in our #SunkenCities exhibition.
Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 380–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. For centuries nobody suspected that the #SunkenCities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay beneath the sea. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, the ancient Egyptian cities were believed to be lost.

Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. The amazing rediscovery of these lost cities is transforming our understanding of the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece.

See more magical moments of discovery in our #SunkenCities exhibition, until 27 November 2016. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

#archaeology #diving #ancientEgypt This week we’re highlighting some of the incredible clocks and watches on display in the Museum. Mechanical clocks first appeared in Europe at some time between 1200 and 1300. Their introduction coincided with a growing need to regulate the times of Christian prayer in the monasteries. Telling the time with a sundial was especially difficult in western Europe with its unreliable weather. From the end of the 13th century, clocks were being installed in cathedrals, abbeys and churches all around Europe.

The design of turret clocks (public clocks) changed little over the following three centuries and this particular example, made around 1600, has similar characteristics to clocks made for churches in the medieval period. The maker of this clock was Leonard Tenant, one of the most prolific makers of church clocks in the first half of the 17th century. The clock was installed in Cassiobury Park, a country house near Watford.

See this incredible clock in Rooms 38-39 
#clocks #watches #horology When clocks and watches were invented around 1200, sound, touch and illumination were all used to read the time in darkness. This was significant because electric lighting did not become widespread until the 20th century.

This photograph shows a detail from a night clock by Pietro Tomasso Campani made in 1683. When it is dark, light from an oil lamp behind the dial shines through the cut-out Roman numerals enabling the time to be read. Each hour, the numeral for that hour moves round the dial. This ‘wandering hour’ dial was invented by the makers of this clock.

You can see this clock in a new display of clocks and watches in our Members’ Room, just one of the many benefits of becoming a Member of the British Museum. Find out more about Membership at www.britishmuseum.org/membership
#clock #watch #nightclock #horology
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