Museum Travel Experiences – Day of the Dead Part I

When I started in the museum profession, I joined the necessary professional organizations to learn and network. I lived in Ohio, so I joined the Ohio Museum Association. Next were the nationals – American Association of Museums (AAM) and American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). I even went so far as to join the International Council of Museums (ICOM). This was way back in 1977 or so!

I enjoyed participating in the national museum meetings. AAM took me to Seattle for the first time. My middle brother settled near there over 40 years ago. There were AASLH meetings in Tucson, and Williamsburg, Virginia. I met colleagues, some of whom I stay in touch with. My museum practice was informed and influenced by presentations I attended. And I enjoyed the sights and even way back then foods.

On that first trip to Seattle we had an evening boat ride, maybe to nearby Bainbridge Island. We were treated with salmon roasted on the fire Northwest Coast Native American style. I’d never eaten salmon and found it so dry, no matter how much lemon you put on it (lessons from my Greek Jewish mother). Now, we eat luscious salmon frequently. Another AAM meeting in New Orleans took us to a nature preserve/museum one evening. The buffet was accompanied by breads in shapes of all the creatures around us – alligators, turtles, and more.

Salmon Roasting NW Native American style

Tucson introduced me to the amazing AASLH comradery and to Arizona Mexican food; I remember a dish called pastel for which I found the recipe many years later (recipe link below*). And Williamsburg, at the restored Governor’s Palace gardens, we enjoyed ripe figs right off the trees.

Pastel Azteca

My first ICOM meeting was Mexico City in 1980. I had just returned to graduate school after 3 amazing years at a grassroots museum that focused on the stories of the many ethnic groups in Cleveland, Ohio. Oh, those years included many ethnic food adventures – to be shared another time. So, Mexico City. I was a folklorist working in museums, on break from grad school, and I gravitated to the ICOM’s Ethnographic Committee (ICME) and was welcomed with open arms. I remember heated discussions about the role of ethnographic museums – a debate which still continues as today’s life forces change around us. I also have amazing food and drink memories from that conference. Unfortunately, I cannot put my hands on the photos!

One evening I accompanied the ICME leadership to the Plaza Garibaldi and learned to drink. This square is where Mexico City citizens come to hire mariachi musicians for their next party, or they just bring the party with them. In today’s world of the highly touted “Food Halls,” Plaza Garibaldi is the proto-food hall, lots and lots of amazing food vendors. Deep in a corner of the plaza were the pulque bars. We, I think we were 5, 3-4 men and me, and we drank the night away on pulque. Some years later on another ICME trip to Mexico I tried this potent potable and could not bear it!

Plaza Garibaldi

Two remarkable excursions were part of the conference. One was an all-day trip to Toluca, on the day of their amazing market; another was to Guanajuato State to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. This holiday at the close of October which falls during All Souls and All Saints Days has taken off in all levels of commercialization. It was pretty commercial in 1980, but also much more handmade. Along with the seasonal vegetables, the Toluca market had so many interesting Day of the Dead items, it was hard to choose – sugar skulls, chocolate caskets, paper priests in processions with caskets, skeleton figures of all sizes, and more. I bought some sugar animals, which are safe inside a box in my trunk of mysteries after all of these years. Our day continued with a formal greeting by the elected officials complete with martial music accompaniment, a visit to the beautiful botanical gardens, and a long bus drive to an estancia with amazing food.

My ca. 1980 sugar animals are not colored.

On the way to Guanajuato on another day, we drove through Cuernavaca. The town square was alive with decorations for Day of the Dead. Scenes of skeletons abounded all around the square in all sized and stages and phases of life.

We arrived in Guanajuato at dusk, just in time to join the local residents going house-to-house to enjoy the altars set up in homes where someone had died in the year. Some simply had tables with the favorite foods of the deceased. Some displayed tableaus from small to life-sized showing how their loved ones met their ends. One was in a car accident. Another died on the operating table. The images of the evening adventure are fondly burned in my memory til now.


Disney’s recent pixar animated film Coco has done much to popularize the Day of the Dead. I much prefer the depiction of the festival in Ray Bradbury’s story, The Halloween Tree. This fantasy takes four friends in search of Halloween from mummies in ancient Egypt, to witches in druidic England, to gargoyles in medieval France, and finally, to Mexico for Dia de los Muertos. It’s a great cartoon with a wonderfully poetic narration by Clavicle Moundshroud (Leonard Nemoy).

The Halloween Tree

More to follow!

*There are many recipes for Pastel Azteca on-line.  Here’s one.  I don’t use the corn and I insert sliced avocado in the layers. I also use Greek/strained yogurt in place of the cream.  Give it a try for your Day of the Dead –

Note: The feature image is one I took about 10 years later in Michoacan. All the others were taken from the web. I have to get my slides transformed into photos.

One comment

  1. Annette: Wonderful to read your newsletter. I think I Will be in Weston for Christmas. Please send your e-mail and pone number.


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