Shared Spirits: Exploring Dia de los Muertos

Examine some of the objects in our new Dia de los Muertos display in the second-floor alcove, and you’ll see small skeletal figures coming to life, their spring-mounted heads nodding back and forth. Is it just an effect caused by floor vibrations–or are spirits greeting you to our newest exhibit?

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a festival that originated in Mexico and is growing in popularity in the United States. Drawing on age-old Indigenous and Catholic customs, Dia de los Muertos is all about honoring one’s deceased loved ones. Participants build altars in their homes to relatives who’ve passed and heap them with food, candles, and other offerings for spirits. Small, decorated sugar skulls are an iconic item in this tradition.

Participants believe that on November 1, the spirits of deceased children come down to reunite with their families, followed by adult spirits the next day. Later in the afternoon of November 2, people go to local cemeteries to continue the celebrations.

A skeletal, yet happy, bride and groom on a bicycle. (Courtesy of Spencer Museum of Art.)

A skeletal, yet happy, bride and groom on a bicycle. (Courtesy of Spencer Museum of Art.)

You’re probably asking: what is the Dia de los Muertos connection to the Watkins? In the 1990s, the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas sponsored several collecting trips to the Mexican town of Oaxaca. As a result, the Spencer acquired a huge trove of Dia de los Muertos folk art. Now, the Spencer and the Watkins are collaborating to show off a portion of this collection.

Shared Spirits: Exploring Dia de los Muertos will be available for view at the Watkins until late November. You’re also invited to our Final Friday opening party from 5 to 8 PM on October 30. Come see the exhibit, enjoy chips and queso, decorate your own sugar skulls, and watch traditions (and spirits?) come to life.

Food Day 2015 at the Watkins

For hundreds of millions of people around the world, getting enough to eat is a constant challenge. The World Food Programme reports that about one in every eight people worldwide suffers from undernourishment. But hunger is not just a far-off problem; it affects people we know right here in Douglas County. The good news is that we can work together to eradicate hunger in our community.

Food Day is a national day of addressing the problem of hunger in America. On Saturday, October 24th, the Watkins will host a Food Day event focused on hunger and food insecurity in our area.

We will be joined by community leaders at Sunrise Project, Penn House/Ballard Center, and KU Fights Hunger, as well as the Douglas County Food Systems Coordinator and the Lawrence Public Schools Farm to School Coordinator.

There will be presentations, family-friendly activities, a short film screening, and, of course, plenty of good food. We will also be accepting food donations for Ballard Community Services at the door. We can’t wait to explore this important issue with our awesome community!

Girls eating watermelon, 1920s. (Watkins collections.)

Girls eating watermelon, 1920s. (Watkins collections.)


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Food Day:

Invasion of the Marionettes

For the third installment in our Halloween-themed look at the scary, mysterious, and just-plain-weird side of the Watkins collections, we’ll explore some truly unique examples of folk art.

For Americans, the 1930s was an era of financial hardships and political strife. Mass entertainment such as movies, radio programs, and professional sports also boomed in popularity, however, as they offered people a chance to briefly escape from their troubles. But today’s post deals with a much older, more traditional form of entertainment: marionettes!

The Bushongs were sisters in Lawrence who built their own collection of marionettes in the ’30s and traveled around giving puppet shows. The Watkins collections include several of their one-of-a-kind creations. This ogre looks like a mean fellow–or is he just misunderstood?


(In fairness to the Bushongs, most of their marionettes were not as grim as this one.)

Our collections also include a large number of marionettes made by other artists. Have a look, reflect on how standards of popular entertainment have changed over the decades, and perhaps find some inspiration for a Halloween costume.

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Sweet dreams!

Intimidating Toys

Today we present our second installment in a Halloween-themed series exploring creepy, mysterious, and just-plain-weird items from the collections of the Watkins.

Toys have a long and complex history, but one thing that becomes readily apparent when you examine children’s playthings from previous eras is that many of them are at least as creepy as they are cuddly. Take, for instance, this leering bunny from around 1940:


Or, continuing on the rabbit theme, how about this detached papier-mache head, which must have made for a truly unforgettable Easter:

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(In this case, we think the blurriness of the photo is partly to blame for any resulting chills.)

One of the strengths of our collections is a truly impressive number of dolls, many of which are rather unsettling, to put it mildly. The face of this crying baby doll makes us want to cry:


Here’s another doll dated to around 1900 and showing its age:


But that’s just the tip of the iceberg–or the top of the toy chest. The way this doll has been disassembled is just disturbing:

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Begging for mercy yet? That’s enough creepiness from our collections for now. Stop by next week for the next post in our look at the scary side of the Watkins Museum!

Hair-Raising History

October is the month of Halloween and the beginning of Day of the Dead, so this month we’ll feature a series of posts about spooky, deadly, and just-plain-weird artifacts from the Watkins collections. Read at your own risk!

Tastes in craft-making have certainly changed over the years, and perhaps that’s a good thing. Did you know that 19th-century Americans loved making wreaths out of human hair? Sometimes these wreaths were made from the hair of deceased loved ones; others were crafted from the collected hair of famous people. We have a particularly striking example dating from 1885.


Large hair wreath. 


Wreath in its wooden frame.

Hair from at least five different-colored heads, worked into loops with dedicated precision by the unknown artist, make up this two-foot wide wreath. We wonder who sacrificed their locks for this amazing item. Is this the sort of thing you’d want to hang on your wall? For many Americans of the 1800s, the answer was a definite yes. Hair’s to you and your unique tastes, Victorians! (Sorry.)

Check back next week for more of the creepy and weird from our collections at the Watkins.