Before you walk up to the “Celebrating the Day of the Dead” exhibition on the second floor, a 15-foot tall colorfully dressed skeleton figure, known as a Catrina doll, will greet you in the lobby of the Figge Art Museum.
There’s another on the top of the stairs and in the corner of the orientation gallery, leading to the community gallery.
In total, 20 life-size and hand-constructed Catrinas and several other traditional decorations associated with Día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday known as Day of the Dead in the U.S., are sprinkled around the Figge this week.
Many could easily pass for Halloween decorations. But the Day of the Dead isn’t meant to be spooky or scary.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Is it like Halloween or Thanksgiving,” Heather Aaronson, the museum’s education programs coordinator, said. “It’s not exactly like either. I can’t think of another holiday that’s like it.”
Those who celebrate Day of the Dead believe that the souls of lost loved ones visit their families on Oct. 31 and leave on Nov. 2.
It has turned into one of the Figge’s busiest seasons.
Aaronson offered tours through the Day of the Dead exhibit every day in October, explaining the “celebration of souls that highlights the strength of family, honoring of ancestors and continuance of life” and “reconnect with loved ones lost through death.”
A Day of the Dead-themed afternoon of family activities drew 3,728 people to the Figge on Sunday, marking the museum’s single busiest day in its history.
“There were people that have never been to the museum before,” Aaronson said. “There were also people who have never heard of Day of the Dead before. So we’re bringing traditions alive.”
The downtown Davenport institution will host an open house-style celebration on Thursday, coinciding with the official Day of the Dead holiday that is observed on Nov. 2.
The Figge partnered with Hola America News, a Latino newspaper based in the Quad-Cities, Mercado on Fifth, the open-air night market in Moline’s Floreciente neighborhood and the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, Council 10 of Davenport for various Day of the Dead activities.
The Cultural Institute of Guanajuato sent artist Juan Hernandez to teach area volunteers and students, including those attending the Creative Arts Academy, how to make the papier-mache Catrina dolls.
Around the community gallery, there stations about the holiday’s history and those iconic Catrina dolls, as well as replicated altars, which are traditionally decorated with flowers, candles and candies to honor family members who have passed. Other stations guide visitors through the market to get their Day of the Dead shopping list ready and the cemetery, where there are decorations to spread around.
Each area offers descriptions in English and Spanish. Another station allows visitors to write messages of remembrance and submit photos of their lost loved ones to the Figge. Above that, a small TV plays a slideshow of the photos.
“It’s serious, but it’s joyful at the same time,” Aaronson said. “It’s universal. We’ve all lost somebody.”
Bruce Walters, an artist and art professor at Western Illinois University, turned the photos and other footage from the exhibit into a video that will play — via a 40-feet in width projection — on the exterior of the Figge during the open house event on Thursday.
“You look at the photos and it’s pretty widely representative, from all ages and different backgrounds,” Walters said. “I felt like it looked like the Quad-Cities.”
In researching the Day of the Dead, Walters was surprised to learn "how different in tone it is from our Halloween."
"The Day of the Dead is very thoughtful and family centered," he said. "It's a way to remember that death is part of life."
For Aaronson, it’s personal. Among those photos, there’s one of her husband Arthur, who died four and a half years ago in a motorcycle accident.
She says she became “more zealous” about celebrating the Day of the Dead after he passed.
“It’s a beautiful way to remember people,” she said. “In America, we don’t really have that way to celebrate our ancestors. It’s being able to talk about it and share memories.”