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November 1, 2009

Mexico's National Museum of Death


Founded two years ago, it's in Aguascalientes.

Here's Chris Hawley's October 30, 2009 USA Today story about the museum, whose peak season is right now because of the November 1-2 Day of the Dead celebrations across the nation.


Museum looks death in the eyes


Dead men may tell no tales, but death itself — well, in Mexico, the subject fills an entire museum.

The National Museum of Death, founded two years ago, explores the country's macabre interest in death and dying, from the mass human sacrifices of the Aztecs to modern-day Day of the Dead celebrations, which begin Sunday.

In its galleries, human skulls encrusted with turquoise grimace at visitors. Tiny skeletons gather around miniature banquet tables, toasting their own demise. The Grim Reaper glares across a room at a case full of bloody crucifixes.

"Mexicans have death imprinted all over their art and culture," museum director Jose Antonio Padilla said. "So why not a museum about it?"

The museum came about because a Mexican art collector had a lot of skeletons in his closet: dozens of tiny calaveritas, or skeleton dioramas, along with hundreds of other death-related artworks he had acquired over 50 years.


The owner, Octavio Bajonero Gil, was looking for a museum to take his collection. Meanwhile, the Autonomous University of Aguascalientes, a state college, was looking to found an art museum and wanted something different, Padilla said.

The museum, with Bajonero's donation as its core collection, opened in 2007 in two buildings owned by the university in downtown Aguascalientes. Admission is 20 pesos, about $1.53.

Reaction to the museum among Mexicans has been mixed, Padilla said, partly because the country is grappling with a wave of murders following President Felipe Calderón's military crackdown on drug cartels.

"People from (border cities in) the north say, 'Why do you want to celebrate something that I'm trying to avoid every day?' " Padilla said. "But this is not a museum of drug violence. It's a museum about a certain artistic tradition."

About one-third of the museum's 70,000 annual visitors are from other countries, mainly the United States.

"It's definitely kind of bizarre," said Spencer Garcia-Stinson, 24, of Gilford, N.H. "In the United States, we don't like to talk about death, but here they're dealing with it so openly. ... It's amazing."

Season of celebration

This is peak season for the museum because of the Nov. 1-2 Day of the Dead celebrations, when Mexicans honor their ancestors and recently deceased relatives.

The fascination with death has its roots in pre-Hispanic religions, Padilla said. Mayans, Aztecs and other cultures regarded death as an important step between life and reincarnation. The souls of one's ancestors were constant, invisible companions.


In one gallery, pre-Columbian sculptures show people cavorting with skeletons representing the souls of the dead. Others depict human sacrifices or the god Xolotl, who guides souls to the Aztec underworld.

One display shows clay sculptures of the hairless Mexican dogs known as xoloitzcuintles. Tribes on Mexico's Pacific coast buried these dogs with their dead to help guide them through the afterlife.

In another case, colored lights shine through a 2-inch-high skull carved from quartz crystal. Only three like it have been found in Mexico, Padilla said.

Other rooms include Roman Catholic images of death, such as crucifixes and a rare statue of the Virgin of Good Death, which is revered in some Spanish churches but is little-known in Mexico.

The collection also includes statues of "Saint Death," the grim reaper, which is increasingly worshiped at shrines and chapels in poor neighborhoods of Mexico.


Some museumgoers have tried to leave offerings for the grim reaper statues, said Juan Manuel Vizcaino, assistant director of exhibits. "We get some unusual people here," Vizcaino said. "Sometimes we have to remind them that it's a museum, not a place of worship."

Many of the cases hold calaveritas, the tiny clay skeletons thatare used, along with candy skulls and marigold flowers, in the altars that Mexicans build for their ancestors ahead of Day of the Dead events.

On the night of Nov. 1-2, many families hold all-night vigils at their relatives' graves. Some towns hold ceremonies with dances, music and displays of flowers.

Death from abroad


The museum also includes depictions of death from other countries, from American Halloween decorations to small replicas of the terra cotta soldiers of China.

Twentieth-century art is housed in a modern annex with blood-red windows. It includes posters from horror movies and calaveras, skeleton cartoons that are published in Mexican newspapers around Day of the Dead and are usually accompanied by satirical poems.


In one calavera from 1964, skeletons representing U.S. presidential candidates Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater are shown dropping bombs on the Congo, Cuba and Vietnam.

The museum also hosts special exhibits, such as Death in Black Pottery, as well as seminars, art workshops and plays with titles such as The Fandango of the Dead and Blame Your Dead on Me.

Before visitors leave, they can visit the museum's coffee shop — The Café of Death — and a gift shop offering T-shirts and calaveritas.

Death's door opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m.



Slide show, from which the images above were selected, here.

November 1, 2009 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Reward yourself and get a copy of "Grim Fandango" a PC game (1998) based somewhat on Aztec afterlife beliefs. The game is considered to be one of the best PC games of all times.


Contact me if you have trouble finding it!

Posted by: Joe Peach | Nov 1, 2009 5:10:12 PM

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