Dia de los Muertos

Returning event

Museum: MAS
Years: 2012 – today


MAS is a museum where one can discover objects and stories, a place where one looks at the world, at Antwerp and at oneself. MAS works at the crossroads of a diverse collection of about 500.000 objects and the vibrant city of Antwerp with its superdiverse citizens and visitors. MAS opts for a thematical approach which connects people to heritage, the present to the future and the past, the local to the international.

MAS believes in the natural links between material and intangible heritage, leading to two approaches to ICH:

  • Firstly, the MAS-collections result from a merger of collections of four former museums. Since the objects in past times were not always collected with a perspective on ICH, MAS chooses to add this layer - where necessary - to the existing collections. This implies that contextual information is augmented with impact on the processes of collecting, registration and documentation. It also opens options for research and appraisal together with local and international (source) communities. This subsequentially has effect on the way the MAS displays objects and stories, as well as on the involvement and support by communities.
  • Next, the MAS values participatory strategies throughout its museum practices. The involvement of communities, experts and other partners influence what is collected, how it is researched, what is elementary to put on display and on possible other events and activities. Participants often don’t distinguish the material from the intangible; for them both are intertwined. So it is the museum that defines - together with these communities - what the practices are and how they relate to each other, to objects, to people and groups, to place, etc. Only from this array, choices can be made on what to preserve and/or safeguard. MAS takes on a role as coordinator, while offering options for identification, research and documentation, collecting (both material objects as digital born objects such as audio-visual creations), presentation, communication and space for related activities. However, MAS chooses not to actively play part in the transmission of ICH-elements, as this is considered the core activity of the ICH-practitioners and the communities involved. Meanwhile, throughout the participatory steps, MAS increases the reflection and display of ICH, also adding partners to ICH-community’s network and thus passively creates opportunities for transmission. Because of its experiences with the museum processes and the co-operation with a myriad of partners, MAS also gives advice to local communities with specific questions on ICH and its safeguarding.

Dia de los Muertos

Description of the project / practice / program

Mestizo Arts Festival (MAF) is a cultural organization which organises a multidisciplinary festival, touching three main ideas: urbanity, mix (=mestizo) and cooperation. The yearly festival explores every edition another theme or statement. It does so by focusing on the interaction of artists and the urban context. Lesser known artistic practices are linked to more established cultural partners. The final aim is a festival with a program that reflects the richness of the urban context in which it takes place.

MAF approached MAS for the celebration of the Dia de Los Muertos. The ‘Day of the Dead’ takes place on 1 and 2 November and is an important celebration in Mexico and Guatemala. People celebrate their deceased friends and family members. Graves of loved ones are cleaned and decorated with coloured petals, candles, incense, coloured paper, depictions of saints, skulls made of sugar and favored objects or clothing of the deceased. At home altars are erected and decorated accordingly. The Christian tradition of All Saints is this way combined with the pre-Columbian celebrations and concept of the temporary return of the deceased’s soul.

Since 2012 MAS and MAF therefore work together for the ‘Altar for the dead’. Two altars are put on display in the free accessible boulevard of the museum. The first altar is a traditional Mexican one, each year curated by an organization appointed by the Mexican embassy (e.g. Museum Nacional de Antropología). Every year another region of Mexico is represented.

The second altar on display is an Antwerp object, which both refers to the authentic Mexican tradition as to the city of Antwerp. Every year it is curated by an artist adding to the altar. In 2012 and 2013 Patricia Lopez, an Antwerp artist with Mexican roots, was curator. She gave a masterclass on her own interpretation on the ‘Altar for the dead’. In 2012 six young artists set up this new altar, each translating a personal loss (of friendship, of love, of a place). Their work was embedded in the altar. The following year ten young artists contributed, adding work on ideas of identity.

In 2014 the Altar was enriched by two performances by the Argentinian play writer Bárbara Echevarrua and four Belgian actors (Mostafa Benkerroum, Sumeya Yaman, Melek Arslan en Lorenzo De Brabandere).

During the last edition, the wide public was invited to bring in a souvenir of their deceased beloved. These objects will be the inspiration for Aimée Zito Lema to make an artwork which shall be integrated in a semi-permenant exhibition on celebrations in Antwerp.

Every year a celebration takes place around the altars. Music, dance and performances are organised by MAF. The Mexican embassy offers traditional snacks and drinks.

© cover photo: Ans Brys | MAS. Portrait photo below: Ake van der Velden



How were practitioners of intangible cultural heritage involved?

The Dia de los Muertos is yearly celebrated on 1-2 November. The Mexican embassy is curator of a traditional altar coming from a Mexican region. MAS and MAF cooperate for the Antwerp ‘Altar for the dead’, which links the Antwerp context to the original Mexican and Guatemalan roots of memorial altars (see above). The altar therefore shows the ‘mestizo’, or the mix of cultures.

Both altars refer to the practice of the Dia de los Muertos as celebrated by Antwerp inhabitants with Latin-American background or interest. But they also form a link between collections on display within the museum. One exhibition hall is dedicated to the pre-Colombian collections of Paul and Dora Janssen-Arts; another is on the concept of Life and Death in cultures over the globe. The idea of the realm of the dead and the way the living deal with that, is therefore already represented in the permanent exhibitions and collections.

The altars are a physical reference to the practices in different cultures. The beliefs, customs and celebrations around them are of course intangible. So are the artistic and reflective processes leading up to additions to the Antwerp altar. Both MAS as MAF do not restrict themselves to solely tangible additions (e.g. performance). However the processes are documented. This led to the acceptance of the Antwerp altar into the MAS’ collections in 2017, making it a ‘living object’.

CV of the author

Sofie De Ruysser works as Consultant policy and strategy for the MAS | Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp, Belgium. From within this museum she builds networks with a myriad of communities and both professional and non-professional heritage partners in Antwerp. She contributes to the MAS’ policy, especially concerning the domains of participation and ICH. Sofie co-ordinated the participatory heritage projects Giants of Antwerp and The Corner Shop and is currently working together with the urban dance scene. She contributes to the municipal heritage policy, linking the Museums and Heritage department to the Local Culture Policy teams in the Antwerp districts. Sofie graduated as Master in History of Art (KU Leuven) and obtained additional degrees in Philosophy (KU Leuven) and Cultural Management (UAMS).


  • Objects in museum collections that represent dynamic practices of intangible cultural heritage, such as the Antwerp altar, can be dynamically altered from time to time. 
  • Artistic interpretations or manifestations can complement or be a part of intangible cultural heritage that is represented in a museum. 




20 March 2018 from 09:42 to 09:42



It is no longer possible to subscribe to this bestpractice. Reports and videos will be published after the bestpractice.


Subscribe to the bestpractice