New Dunn Museum exhibition explores Mexican Day of the Dead
By Kim Mikus
Lake County Forest Preserves
Bright orange marigold flowers, dimly lit altars, sugar skulls decorated with crystalline colors, and dressed up skeletons all play a role in the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
These cultural symbols are also a part of the newest exhibition that opened Saturday at the Dunn Museum in Libertyville.
"A Celebration of Souls: Day of the Dead in Southern Mexico," will run through Jan. 5, 2020, at the nationally accredited museum.
This exhibition, developed by the Field Museum in collaboration with Mars Inc., coincides with the actual multiday festival celebrated every fall in commemoration of friends and family members who have died. It is one of the most important holidays in Latin America.
Each Nov. 1 and 2, on the Christian holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, families in villages across Mexico gather to welcome home visiting spirits of departed relatives on the Día de Muertos. Mexicans often decorate altars in honor of the deceased with skeleton models, elaborate wreaths and crosses, votive lights and fresh, seasonal flowers. Traditionally, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 are set aside for remembrance of deceased infants, and those who have died as adults are honored on Nov. 2.
"When planning the exhibition, it was important to Dunn Museum staff that it run during the actual holiday," said Andrew Osborne, superintendent of educational facilities at the Lake County Forest Preserves, which operates the Dunn Museum. "The alignment was perfect," he said.
"The temporary exhibition features 26 framed, color photographs taken in and around Oaxaca, Mexico. The photographs examine the complex and rich histories of honoring the dead in ancient Mesoamerica, the labor of love involved in these diverse rituals, and the spiritual importance of this holiday in rural Mexico today," he said.
A strong and recognizable symbol of the Day of the Dead celebration is La Catrina, a tall female skeleton wearing a fancy hat with feathers and bright clothing. Life-size carinas created by Dunn Museum exhibition designers are featured in the exhibit.
"These cultural symbols, depicting how the Mexican people see death and the afterlife, nicely accompany the photographs of candlelit altars and rich offerings of food -- including a row of solid chocolate skulls," said Steve Furnett, exhibitions and collections manager.
The bilingual exhibition, and its related educational programming, allows the Dunn Museum to better reach Lake County's Latino residents, Osborne said.
"This is the fastest growing population in the county, and one that is currently underrepresented in our collections," Osborne said.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Dunn Museum and College of Lake County have launched the Latinx Community Engagement Project.
"Members of CLC's student Latino Alliance Club are tasked with helping our staff gather stories and photographs of Hispanic families that have moved to Lake County from Latin America so we can better understand their journey and the life they created here," Osborne said.
The Dunn Museum's Lake County History Archives holds 1,000 linear feet of collections relating to the history of Lake County's people, places and events. Through the Latinx Community Engagement Project, the Dunn Museum will broaden the scope of the stories held in the archives, and our ability to tell the stories of all Lake County residents past and present, Osborne said.
To tie in local connections to the "Day of the Dead" exhibit, artist and muralist Robert Valadez was commissioned to paint a custom 15-by-4-foot mural for the entrance of the gallery. The professional artist's work is featured in the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago.
Valadez, 56, said the mural, done with acrylics, is based on the famous artwork of Mexican illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), known for his whimsical figures of skulls and skeletons that have become closely associated with the Day of the Dead.
Valadez, of Chicago, said his mural depicts notable people with connections to Lake County, both real and fiction, in a fun ballroom scene setting. Marlon Brando, Ray Bradbury, Bess Bower Dunn, Adlai Stevenson and Jack Benny are a few of the characters featured in the artwork.
"They are dancing and playing music with skull makeup," said Valadez, who started his career creating neighborhood murals in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. "I am honored to have my work on display at the Dunn Museum," Valadez said.
The mural and the CLC project were funded by a grant awarded through the Preservation Foundation, the charitable partner of the Lake County Forest Preserves.
"As with all temporary exhibits at the Dunn Museum, a wide variety of programs and events will take place during its run," said Nan Buckardt, director of education at the Lake County Forest Preserves.
For example, "Chocolate in Life and Death" is an event that explores how chocolate was made and consumed in ancient Mexico and its use in Día de los Muertos traditions today.
"We'll grind roasted cacao beans on a metate and demonstrate how to prepare a traditional drinking chocolate," Buckardt said. The session takes place at 2 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 20, at the Dunn Museum.
A bilingual storytime, a family celebration, lunchtime tours, crafts and other activities are also included in the mix.
"It is really exciting to host an exhibit that has such broad appeal. We have worked closely with community members to add culturally accurate programming and experiences," she said.
• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She writes a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at kmikuscroke@LCFPD.org. Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.