Day of the Dead/Día de los Muertos: The Museum Comes Alive with the Spirit and Traditions of Day of the Dead

By Irene Rodríguez

The Palm Springs Art Museum’s (PSAM) entrance has been transformed with marigold petals to guide the spirits to the altars to be with the living for the day. Papel picado is suspended from the rails. Altars honoring loved ones are displayed throughout the Museum. Azteca Dancers inaugurated the Museum's Day of the Dead/Día de los Muertos celebration on Saturday, October 25, 2014. The festivities continued with Mariachi Azteca de Oro playing throughout the day, visitors making papel picado, paper flowers, prints based on the Day of the Dead logo as well as Jose Guadalupe Posada's iconography, sugar skull magnets, and most popular art activity, mask making. Day of the Dead/Día de los Muertos is a time of joyous celebration and remembrance where families gather to tell stories, honor their heritage and commemorate loved ones who have passed away.

People making paper flowers while listening to Mariachi

The Palm Springs Art Museum has celebrated Day of the Dead/ Día de los Muertos on and off since 1994, and annually since 2004. The event is a free community day filled with art and culture that celebrates an important Mexican tradition. The event began as an effort to recognize and to begin cultivating a sustainable relationship between the museum and the Latino community of the Coachella Valley. It has become our most anticipated and attended event during the year where both the Latino and non-Latino communities come together to celebrate and learn about cultural differences.

Traditional dances at the Día de los Muertos celebration

Many of our visitors shared how this year was the best celebration yet. I believe this statement is a result of the different layers we add to the programming, as well as the altars honoring loves one, causes, and influential people. We have included signage explaining the "why" of the art activities and elements of Day of the Dead. Signage explaining the significance of the marigold's petals at each of entrance informs our visitors that laying a path of these petals and its strong scent is believed to act as a guide for the returning spirits.

Each year, the education department reflects how to make Day of the Dead an authentic experience while honoring the holiday. Since 2007, the education department has involved and integrated the community in a variety of ways. The Museum works closely with local artists to create and install a variety of Day of the Dead altars. Located throughout the galleries, these altars honor the traditions of the day while creating a forum for conversation about the celebration, cultural traditions, and contemporary art. In addition, Day of the Dead/ Día de los Muertos incorporates community member performances, local vendors, and the Museum’s Artists Council, Docent Council and staff. We have contacted our local libraries where Museum has become a part of their story time as museum staff read Day of the Dead themed books and make some of the art activities. This year, we reached out to the local Quilt Guild to display their Day of the Dead themed quilts, as well as to the Black History Month Committee of Palm Springs to install an altar in honor of James O. Jessie, the namesake of their community center. Through these partnerships and their direct relationship with the Latino community, the PSAM continues to demonstrate a commitment to Latino audience development and broaden the day of the dead program our diverse community.

What does this program mean to the community and the Museum? This is a question in the forefront of the education department because it is important that the community program is impactful and meaningful for our visitors. Due to the large number of attendance—from 1,800 to 5,400 over the past four years—it is challenging to conduct an evaluation to understand fully our impact. Though, I do have anecdotal data from our visitors:

I attend the Day of the Dead with my family, participate in the art activities, and listen to the Mariachi. As I return home, I feel peaceful and joyous of spending the day at the museum.             

My daughter participated with her Spanish Club to install an altar at the Museum. The experience led her to create an altar at home for her grandmother.

Thank you very much for your hard work and commitment. We truly enjoyed el Día de los Muertos.  We look forward to next year.

This is the best thing the Museum does for the families and children.

Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos has become a place for families and children to be exposed not only to traditional art activities, but also to the PSAM’s collection of contemporary art as we strive to meet our mission of promoting enjoyment, education and involvement with the visual arts.



Irene is currently the Interim Director of Education at the Palm Springs Art Museum, and partnered with community organizations to make the arts more accessible for children and adults alike. She has served on the Program Committee of the Western Museums Association and holds the office of Secretary for the Museum Educators of Southern California. In her spare time, she takes ballet and pointe classes.



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