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.
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.
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.
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