We are proud to present to our members and trustees, as well as to visitors across the nation, our new traveling exhibition "Rites of Passage in America: Traditions of the Life Cycle." This is the Balch Institute's sixty-eighth exhibition since we opened in 1976. We feel it fulfills in an especially exciting and dynamic way our mission of interpreting and promoting intergroup understanding. In a period of community tensions nationally, "Rites of Passage" celebrates our ethnic and racial diversity, while revealing our cultural commonalties.
How do we Americans mark our life transitions? Birthday parties, graduations, bachelor parties, and retirement dinners are common rites of passage in American life. Yet, the Edin Toa (Akan baby-naming ceremony), Sunrise Ceremonial (Apache coming-of-age ritual), Mehendi party (Pakistani pre-marital custom), and sitting Shiva (Jewish mourning tradition) are rites of passage traditions observed in the United States too.
Most of us are less aware of the importance of rites of passage than were our ancestors. Yet, while many of the traditional rituals brought to this country have been lost, others continue to be practiced. In many cases, traditional rituals have been adapted to fit American values and lifestyles.
The exhibition and this accompanying catalogue explore the role of rites of passage in our lives. A primary focus is on the ways in which Americans of diverse ethnic heritage are becoming more conscious of the power and meaning of rites of passage and, as a result, choosing or creating customs which better reflect their own cultural experience. The story is one that attests to the vitality of our multicultural society.
President and Chief Executive Officer
The museum has been fortunate to have had the help of many individuals, organizations and institutions in developing the exhibition. We are grateful to our sponsor, Lila Wallace - Reader's Digest Fund, for their generous support of the exhibition, its tour, public programs, and this catalogue. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Samuel S. Fels Fund also provided much needed support for the exhibition.
We wish to thank the contributors to the exhibition catalogue: the essayists, Jill Leslie McKeever-Furst and Steven Zeitlin, and Elizabeth Holland who wrote several of the case studies. Our thanks go as well to Native Peoples magazine and the Seal Press for allowing us to reproduce excerpts of their published material. We are grateful to Susan Slymovics and Amanda Dargan for allowing us to use excerpts from their video "The Painted Bride" and its interpretive booklet. Paula Benkart provided insightful editorial assistance, while Joan Guerin created the catalogue's created the catalogue's wonderful graphic design. Most of the object photography was done by Will Brown, and valuable clerical assistance was provided by Joanne Snavely and Stephanie Parks.
Exhibit Designer Steven Tucker and his crew of preparators created a display which is both elegant and functional. Elizabeth Holland, Project Coordinator, successfully balanced a variety of curatorial responsibilities, and scheduled the exhibit's national tour. Allison Weiss provided valuable research assistance.
Vital to the exhibit's conceptualization was the input of its academic advisor), board: Dr. Melvin Hammarberg, Dr. Debora Kodish, and Dr. Steven Zeitlin. Dr. James Turk, Balch Education Director, made valuable suggestions from the perspective of public interpretation.
Those people whose personal photographs, artifacts and stories are in the exhibit and its catalogue deserve special recognition. They are Paul and Susan Binkis, Zellnor Bullis, Camara Corbett and Fasaha Traylor of the Black Humanist Fellowship, Elizabeth Capozzi, Dick Falk, Anna Early Goseyun, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Sumiko Kobayashi, Chia Kue, Rabbis Mordechai Liebling and Devorah Bartnoff, Barbara and Douglas Loh, Carl and Chris Nelson, Eleanor Thomas Nelson, Carmen Neris, Yael and Luana Silverberg-Willis, Andrew and Bopha Skinner, Joanne Snavely, Betsy Platkin Teutsch, Frances Flood Thomas, and James Turk.
Photographers play an important role in documenting rites of passage. We are pleased to present the work of the following photographers and thank them for their cooperation: Martha Cooper, Dennis Photography, Daniel Farber, Michele Frentrop, Lori Grinker, Seth Grossman, Matt Herron, Fred Hirschmann, Doranne Jacobson, Donald Lokuta, Danh Nguyen, Yaa Nson Opare, Judy Peiser, I. Sheldon Posen, Raul R. Rubiera, Hinda Schuman, Michael Smith, Katrina Thomas, Mpozi Tolbert, and John Michael Vlach.
We wish to thank the artists and collectors who made available the fine work featured in the exhibit: William F. Bucher, Bun Em, Chico and Antonio Garcia, Marijana Grisnik, Josefina Lizarraga, the late Ethel Wright Mohamed (courtesy of her daughter Joy M. Fulcher), Pliab Moua, Iphigenia S. Nicas, César Trasobares, and Thomas N. Whitehead.Instrumental in helping us to locate artifacts, photographs, and information were Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, Catherine D'Ignazzio, David Drysdale of Ivy Hill Cemetery Co., Julia Dutton of CHOICE, Julie England of Cobblestone Publishing, Inc., Arlene Hirschfelder, Jennifer Holland Gagliardi, Dr. James S. Griffith, Samina Hooda, Johnny Irizarry of Taller PuertorriqueNo, E.R. Moore Company, Dr. Bonnie O'Connor, Diana Pardue of the Heard Museum, Edgar Perry of the Apache Cultural Center, Dr. Anita Schorsch, Siraj Sharma, Manju Sheth, Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk, Amy Skillman, Arthur Wascow, and Dr. Steven Zeitlin. The institutions who cooperated in lending artifacts and making available photographs from their collections include the Association for Gravestone Studies, Worcester, Massachusetts; Atwater Kent Museum, Philadelphia; the Center for Southern Folklore Archives, Memphis, Tennessee; City Lore, Inc., New York; the Free Library of Philadelphia; the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania; the Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia; the Kansas Museum of History; the Library of Congress; the Manor Junior College Ukrainian Heritage Studies Center, Jenkintown, Pennsylvania; the Museum of Judaica of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia; the Museum of Mourning Art at Arlington Cemetery, Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania; the Museums at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, New York; the National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia; the Leon J. and Julia S. Obermayer Collection at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia; the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center at the Balch Institute; the Roberson Center for Arts and Sciences, Binghamton, New York; Urban Archives at Temple University, Philadelphia; and Visual Communications Archives, Los Angeles. We appreciate as well the cooperation of Alan Lomax of the Association for Cultural Equity, New York; and Christopher MacCrate of the Apache Cultural History Project, Ltd., Tempe, Arizona, for allowing us to use in the exhibit videos which they produced: "Jazz Parades" (ACE) and "The Gift of Changing Woman" (Apache Cultural History Project).
Artifacts from The Balch Institute's permanent collections were donated by John Gaydos, Ruthanne Hartung, Marie Ianni, Joseph and Edward Janco, Esther Miller Kagan, Évi Bossany Loeb, and John McCurry.
The Balch Institute is pleased to present a national traveling exhibition which focuses on the most basic human ritual traditions-- those of the life-cycle. In all human societies, birth, coming of age, marriage and death are marked by rites of passage which create a transition from one life stage to the next. Although by choice or by chance an individual may not participate in each stage (for example choosing not to marry, or dying prematurely), the experience of participating in one's own or others' rites of passage is universal.
The exhibit focuses on traditions as they are practiced in the United States. It reveals how Americans of diverse ethnic heritage have maintained, lost, revived, and reinvented rites of passage as their values and life-styles have changed, but as their need for structure and continuity has remained constant.
The decision to undertake this exhibition reflects a policy recently adopted by the Museum Committee of the Balch Institute which establishes priorities for exhibition themes. The top themes include social histories of single ethnic groups, the display and interpretation of traditional ethnic crafts, and the treatment of multiethnic topics such as this one. The exhibition builds on themes developed in previous shows, most notably a 1988 Balch exhibit, "Something Old, Something New: Ethnic Weddings in America," and a series of 1975-76 exhibitions on rites of marriage and rites of passage organized by the Community Programs Department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
During the planning process we realized that an exhibition on rites of passage in America could not be comprehensive; practices differ not only between ethnic groups, but also within a single ethnic group and even within a single family. Our Advisory Board for the project (historian Dr. Melvin Hammarberg, and folklorists Dr. Debora Kodish and Dr. Steven Zeitlin) came up with a case study approach to avoid the inaccuracies of sweeping generalizations and to personalize the exhibit. For example, the visitor learns how Barbara and Douglas Loh celebrated the "full month" party of their infant son, Jason, not how all Chinese Americans celebrate their children's births.
The primary role of traditional crafts in rites of passage is reflected in the extraordinary pieces included in this exhibit. These are the works of artists who have managed to adapt new forms, materials and/or techniques to suit the changing conditions, needs, and tastes of life in America. Their works are highly valued within the communities they serve. Visual artworks also find a place in the exhibit as documents of life-cycle traditions and of the artist's perspective on those traditions.
The essays included here examine rites of passage from a variety of perspectives. Curator Pamela Nelson views them in the context of social history, examining the impact of immigration, assimilation, intermarriage and other forces of change. Steven Zeitlin looks at life-cycle events from a folklorist's perspective, dealing with the customs, rituals and choices people make in moving through life's stages. In her essay, art historian Jill Leslie McKeever-Furst examines the clothing, traditional objects and other visual materials that are incorporated into life-cycle observances. These essays are an original contribution to the literature on ethnicity and cultural change.
Gail F. Stern