Back in the autumn of 2009, the BM was hosting Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler, part of their Great Leaders series of exhibitions. I was fortunate enough to be able to visit each of the Great Leader exhibitions, but Moctezuma offered something special, something quite unique, certainly in my experiences of visiting museums. In association with the exhibition, the BM put on a Day of the Dead festival. Now, while I had certainly heard of the Day of the Dead, I had never participated in or really seen much about it. Intrigued, I decided that this was the day that I had to go and see the exhibition (travelling down from Wales and juggling work, it had required planning).
Thinking that I would see the exhibition first and then explore the festival events, I had somewhat fortuitously arrived bright and early before the Museum doors were open. Fortuitous it was because I experienced something I had never before seen, in some two decades of museum going, a queue! Conjuring mental images of the black and white photographs of hundreds snaking around the BM gardens waiting to glimpse the Tutankhamen exhibition, there was the immediate sense that you were part of something, this was going to more than just a wander around the BM, this was an event, and an event that would be shared by thousands.
Having lived about ten minutes from the BM while studying at the Institute of Archaeology, going to the BM had been a fairly regular occurrence. If not for visiting, the site provided a useful shortcut on jaunts across the city. But in what must be by now the hundreds of visits made, never before, nor subsequently, had I seen the museum filled in such a way. It was not just the fact that the museum was crammed, it was the energy of the crowd. Not forgetting the exhibition, it was excellent, but in terms of the day, the collections almost became an irrelevance.
Exhibitions areas, more familiar as quiet, almost reserved centres of contemplation, were transformed into vibrant musical arenas. The Enlightenment Gallery stood out, as it suddenly becoming a buzzing hub of experimental musical exploration. Around the museum, either similar sensory events were interjected into the galleries, or more familiar talks were led around key objects, but whatever the activity, they were all eagerly consumed by a swelling audience.
In the Great Hall, this giant white space, friend of the echo, became a little Mexico. Food stalls and alters filled the space, but in front of the Reading Room was what became the main centre piece of the day. While dance and music played out through the day, the event culminated in the procession of the dead, but while I could try and describe this key moment, this video from the BM presents the day far better than I might express in words. Here I found myself in the middle of a throng pressing in on a Mariachi band (intangible cultural heritage on display as well), and I seemed to be one of the few there who did not know the words to the songs! This was an international demographic, the event had allowed the BM to reach out to that wider audience, to make the world very welcome.
On this one day in November, some 30,000 people came into the museum. 30,000...in a day, and it felt very special to be among that number. Perhaps at a time when museums in Britain are facing staffing cuts, collections cuts and general closures, local and national authorities might look back on the Day of the Dead at the BM, and take some time to think. The museum is a powerful thing. Underutilised, the museum can become a dark forgotten depository of poorly presented fragments. With some vision and enthusiasm, the museum can become a powerful force, an attraction yes, but much more than that, it can become the stimulus of identity, the celebration of culture, and the platform through which a sense of pride might be derived. The museum is a special thing, and before they are lost it is really worth considering just how important they can be, for the individual, for the community, and for the nation.
Visiting the BM on this day was really quite a profound museums experience for me, and will be difficult to rival among my many museum memories up to this point in my life, and for the many memories yet to be made.