In a part of central Mexico that doesn’t get many tourists, the Museum of Death is cool enough to warrant a side trip.
You don’t have to spend much time in central Mexico to realize this country has a strange relationship with death. Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—is a multi-day event in some towns and cities. People spend days working on their costumes and make-up. (If you’ve seen the great Pixar movie Coco, you now know a bit of the back story.)
In the city of Aguascalientes you can visit the Museo Nacional de la Muerte, the National Museum of Death. It costs all of 20 pesos for adults and 10 for kids—around $1 and 50¢—and is a great display of the subject in sculpture, painting, paper maché, wood carvings, and more. There’s even a mysterious crystal skull.
The Museum of Death opened in 2007 as part of the University of Aguascalientes, mostly as a place to house the extensive collection of death-related artifacts and art that they inherited from artist Octavio Bajonero Gil. The collection includes some of his own work as well. Over the years the collection has gotten more thematic and organized to provide insight into Mexico’s history and how that impacted the people’s view of death and dying.
In most countries a death museum would be a glum and even grisly affair. This one is a playful place though, with most of the skeletons wearing a smile. The whole museum seems to be suppressing a giggle actually.
You can get the general slant looking at the photos here, including a skeleton couple in bed still enjoying foreplay. You get skeletons drinking at cantinas, big family dinners, and a baby sleeping on a skull. Ahhh good fun.
There are signs and video monitors showing explanations in Spanish (there are not many English-speaking tourists in this area), but you can tell from the displays in the museum that Mexico’s relationship with death is not a new development. Maya and Aztec artifacts show moving skeletons. Day of the Dead posters go back to the 1800s and there are stamps and lottery tickets depicting the holiday’s mascot Catrina. That iconic image is attributed to the Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada, so naturally he gets a few shout-outs as well.
This is a museum you can drag the kids to and they won’t whine too much. It’s not all that large, first of all, the kind you can get through in an hour even if you want to see everything. You can really get schooled in the evolution of death attitudes over the years: the curator has done a great job of organizing the exhibits in a way that really tells a story and shows a transition.
There are plenty of whimsical things to look at though if you aren’t into the history so much, from beaded skulls to giant paper-mache sculptures. It provides great insight into traditions that stretch back a couple thousand years, but it’s also enjoyable just on a surface level for a six-year-old.
The Museum of Death is housed in a historic building with a nice courtyard on the university grounds. A courtyard filled with crazy dead people! I wouldn’t want to be hanging around there at night…
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. It’s in the historic centro area of Aguascalientes, at Rivero and Gutiérrez Esq. Morelos. Aguascalientes isn’t exactly loaded with attractions for visitors and is known more as an industrial powerhouse, but it’s two hours by bus from Zacatecas, 2.5 from San Luis Potosi or Guanajuato.
Hotel prices are a bargain here. I could only find three with a weekend price above $100 and most are under $50, including chains like Hampton Inn. The best selection is on Booking.com. Or if you’re going to stick around a while, check the prices at Airbnb.
For more information on the National Museum of Death, check out the official website in Spanish.