Mathers displays early altar for Day of the Dead


The Día de los Muertos Community Altar at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures consists of collections of photos, notes and decorations to honor the dead. Curators of the altar Rachel DiGregorio and Michael Redman organize and construct the altar each year, which was originally housed in Wandering Turtle Art Gallery. Bridget Murray and Bridget Murray

Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a holiday traditionally celebrated in Mexico and other Latin American countries Nov. 1. The day commemorates lost loved ones, 
often with offerings.

The Mathers Museum of World Cultures will have the 10th Annual Día de los Muertos Community Altar beginning Oct. 7.

The altar offers the opportunity for community members to pay their respects and leave offerings for the important people in their lives.

Rachel DiGregorio and Michael Redman are curators of the installation. DiGregorio said Mathers provides an appropriate atmosphere for such an event.

“We’re very lucky to have the Mathers Museum hosting us again this year,” DiGregorio said. “Mathers is both a safe place to construct the altar while remaining accessible to everyone in the community, which is really important to me.”

Sarah Hatcher, head of programs and education at Mathers, said DiGregorio approached her about having the event at Mathers three years ago after its original venue, Wandering Turtle Art Gallery, was no longer available.

The program fell in line with the objectives of the museum, Hatcher said.

“Our goals as a whole are to explore and help people think about the unique phenomenon that is human culture,” Hatcher said. “This is definitely a way for us to look at traditions in the Latin American world and think about some of the cultural practices around us and mourning.”

The altar began about the size of a closet and has since expanded to three or four times the size, DiGregorio said. This year’s event begins three weeks earlier than usual, which allows more people to visit with their offerings.

Redman, who collaborated with Jaime Sweany of Wandering Turtle on the original altar, said it grows each year.

“We create the altar fresh each year using the original pieces from the first year, adding the offerings people have left each year and a few things that have spoken to us during the year,” Redman said.

DiGregorio said her first experience with the altar was at Wandering Turtle in 2008, after her own loss.

“It became an unexpected part of my grieving process,” DiGregorio said. “It was incredibly moving to see others do the same. When Jaime Sweany had to step down in 2012 for personal reasons, she asked me to take her place. I’ve been 
involved since then.”

Patrons also have an opportunity to leave a note, which will be added to a book alongside past messages after the event.

Redman said reading the notes every year adds a layer of difficulty to the job because of the emotion tied to each 

Redman said experiencing the event after the loss of his mother last year showed him how the Dia de lost Muertos ritual acts as a cycle.

“I added something for her,” Redman said. “That was meaningful for me. I sat out on the front steps of the museum last year talking to a friend whose son had died that year, and she had left an offering for him on the altar. She, herself, died earlier this year, and there will be offerings for her on this year’s altar.”

Hatcher said the visual appeal of the altar is only increased by the items people choose to leave.

She took a minute, overcome with emotion, as she recalled a photo of a little boy set on the altar, and a child coming up to point out, “That’s my brother.”

“It’s so beautiful to see the things people leave and the ways in which people are remembered,” Hatcher said.

The event has always received a good deal of community attention, and with the location change to Mathers, students realized they could get involved as well.

DiGregorio said she appreciates the inclusive approach in an event geared toward remembering people once held close.

“For me, it’s a celebration of those that have passed,” DiGregorio said. “It’s a way to remember them and the impact they had on my life.”

Each person’s experience at the altar is different but altogether therapeutic, Redman said.

“It’s sadness, but also it’s joy and celebration of their lives and our relationships with them,” Redman said. “It’s a space set aside to remember those times and to get in touch with what we still keep of them within ourselves. Some people who visit the altar spend all of their time there in quiet memory. Others talk about the dead.”

The closing ceremony will take place at 3 p.m. Nov. 1. Until then, anyone can stop by the museum to pay their respects and leave their messages.

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