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HistoryAtWork has spent over twenty years working with communities, places and collections. Please explore our projects below to read about this work, and feel free to contact us if you would like to know more.


Travellers Tales: El Dias de los Muertos

I love stepping outside my neighbourhood and regularly criss-cross Melbourne to explore something I’ve noticed, somewhere I’ve been passing through. Houses, gardens, shop windows, signs on walls and lamp posts all catch my eye, beckoning me to check out this local community.

And when I travel, I like to feel as though I’ve engaged with the place and the people. From late October to early November, I piggybacked on a friend’s itinerary to Mexico. Our travels were mostly framed by an organised (five-day, small group, bus) tour to experience the life-affirming El Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico City.

Our days were intense, intimate, moving, memorable and full of colour and joy; the community’s engagement with death and the deceased an illuminating contrast to the solemnity usually associated with mourning and remembrance in my own traditions.

At the heart of the Day of the Dead rituals is an acknowledgement that death is part of the life cycle.  Everywhere was decorated and people of all ages were dressed up; some wore masks, others painted their faces and bodies; shop windows, buildings, markets and streets were adorned with petals of orange marigolds and magenta celosia, and strung with papel picado, buntings of paper cutouts of skulls, skeletons, flowers and other motifs in bright colours; bakery windows displayed decorated sugar skulls, their interiors swarming with people buying pan de muerto, specially-shaped brioche.

 Ideal Bakery, Mexico City.

Ideal Bakery, Mexico City.

Public and private altares de muertos, altars, commemorate the departed and entice them back for the night. While each altar is unique, common elements include photographs, an arch, papel picado, seasonal flowers and fruits, sugar skulls. Each element is symbolic and may vary according to regional traditions.

In Plaza Santo Domingo, university students constructed altares to commemorate those killed in the protests of the Mexican Movement of 1968, which occurred in the build-up to Mexico hosting the Olympic Games that year. These were powerful installations, often with strong graphics and Mexican social, historical and political references unknown to me.

 An installation in Plaza Santo Domingo

An installation in Plaza Santo Domingo

We visited a modest home on the city fringes en route to the local cemetery. Under cover in the courtyard, the altar was personal and intimate to the family. Inside was another, a little more elaborate.

It was dark, and raining. We walked along busy cobbled streets to the cemetery, crossing paths with men carrying between them enormous saucepans of food, chairs, flowers, umbrellas. Via loudspeaker we heard prayers from the chapel. The cemetery was congested; we moved to a clearing from which to respectfully and unobtrusively observe families gathering for the night at decorated graves, playing music, singing, talking and laughing, eating.

How privileged we were to engage so intimately with such a significant aspect of a community’s life, at once personal and communal, and for this I must thank our intelligent and culturally-sensitive guide.

Emma Russellcommunities