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Kurt Zwolfer: Celebrating Life with the Day of the Dead


Growing up near Chicago, Kurt Zwolfer had never heard of Dia de los Muertos. Now he's the curator of a Day of the Dead exhibit at the Idaho State Historical Museum, where he works as an education specialist. Up to 13,000 Idaho school children walk through the doors of the museum each year, many to participate in the programs that Zwolfer oversees, but he says this year's Dias de los Muertos exhibit is, strangely enough, life affirming.

How many people visited the Dias de los Muertos exhibit last year?

We had about 2,000 people in five days, which is great for an event that we, honestly, planned at the last minute. About a month prior to the event, the Mexican Consulate asked us to put an altar in the lobby. We ended up doing a few more. We thought we would get some response, but the night of Dias de los Muertos [Nov. 2], people kept coming and coming. We knew that night that this would be something that would become an annual event.

How much bigger will this year's event be?

We have expanded it to two weeks instead of one, and the altars will be much more elaborate and larger. When you give an artist several months, they can come up with a pretty significant project.

And these altars traditionally honor someone or something.

Dia de los Muertos is kind of a combination of pre-Christian belief--maybe going back to the Aztecs--and a time when Christianity came in with the Spaniards. Like many religions, it borrows from multiple eras. There is one day, the day after All Saints Day, when the spirits return to be with the ones they love. All over Mexico and Central America, altars are set up, usually to a family member but also to friends. People put pictures on the altars, along with favorite food, alcohol and flowers. In a lot of houses, they have a trail of marigold petals leading from the front door to the altar, because the spirits are attuned to marigolds.

Will any of the altars at the museum have perishable items?

A lot of the main items that go on an altar are things you're never supposed to have in a museum--flowers, flames and food. But this is a festival of life.

Anglo cultures usually attach solemnity to the dead, so this is very new for many.

Essentially you're having a celebration around somebody who died. To us death is always considered an occasion where you mourn for a day or weeks or months, but then you try to get it out of your mind and forget about it. In my opinion, Dia de los Muertos is a much healthier attitude. And I think a historical museum is all about memory. So this is a way to celebrate your ancestors and friends.

The colors in many of these displays are so vibrant.

Almost gaudy in their brightness. We think of a funeral and we think of wearing black. Here it's the complete opposite. The colors are almost electric.

We have one particular altar from a folk artist in Nyssa, [Ore.]. It will be particularly meaningful. Her granddaughter just passed away a few weeks ago. Her name is Sachi, which means flower in Aztec. This altar is in her memory. It is a pillar with flowers that have been dipped in wax, but then we have about 500 to 600 spectacularly colored paper flowers that have been made by school kids at Whitney Elementary and Sage Elementary. All of their flowers will become a long river of color flowing from the pillar. Additionally, we have work from school kids at Foothills Elementary. They crafted some beautiful hanging banners--papel picado, which means cut paper.

People might think twice about bringing children to a festival marking death.

It's the complete opposite. Even though Dia de los Muertos is the return of the dead, it's truly a festival of life. The kids love it. There's a lot of energy.

There's a good chance that this might be the first time many people visit the museum.

I hate to say this, but the museum, for many years, has been a very static place. Some of the exhibits have been here since the 1960s and for good reason. They're beloved. We'll never change our role of being Idaho's collective memory, but our hope is to build a sense of community through shared experience.

I know this is your job, but have you had moments of reflections of friends or families that you miss most?

Certainly. Everyone knows the big bar in our museum. We're turning the bar into a large altar, where people can bring pictures of family members or friends. I brought some pictures of my own. I'm remembering a friend from college who passed and my grandparents.

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