Posner exhibit explores rituals

Displays showcase changes over time and across cultures

Sarah Moss-Horwitz Jan 20, 2014

Rituals form the basis of human social activity. While rituals may seem like things of the past, in truth, many have simply evolved over time in changing contexts. Moreover, rituals are not just significant cultural habits; they are also inherently personal decisions. In many ways, rituals form the basis for self-created practices to deal with personal issues.

Junior BHA student Nicole Anderson has always been interested in rituals of many types. She explored the concept of the evolution and origins of personal rituals and rites in a curated exhibit of books and artifacts from the Posner collection called “Make Your Own Meaning” in the Posner Center that opened this past Friday.

The driving force behind Anderson’s exhibit deals with the question of how a ritual can enable the individual to cope with change, focusing on large, life-changing moments that society deems important. The exhibition is composed of six displays organized into three stages of life: adolescence, marriage, and death. Within each stage of life, Anderson explores the traditional ritual in one display and an adaptation to the original in the next, creating an interesting interplay between the past and the present.

For marriage and death, Anderson compares traditional rituals with modern adaptations. She juxtaposes the rituals that make up a traditional Anglo-Saxon wedding with recent Indian-American weddings that combine traditional Indian weddings with their American counterparts. Likewise, the exhibit compares ancient Chinese death rites to the modern customs of Chinese Americans, showing what has stayed the same and what has evolved. The exhibit comments on the way in which individuals take ownership of outdated rituals in order to use them more meaningfully within the context of their own lives.

Anderson took a slightly different approach to the two sections devoted to adolescence. These exhibits focus less on the manner in which social groups change their ethnic customs due to migration, and more on how being a teenager in the United States has changed. “Prom” tells the story of tradition and how the “most important day of your life” evolved. The exhibit cites movies and TV shows that glorify simple events as well as critique them, from the age-old, yet constantly retold Cinderella fairy tale to 10 Things I Hate about You. An exhibit on the concept of the teenage bedroom explores the increased importance of the idea of creating spaces that reflect personal identity, drawing from Shakespeare’s Ophelia and the 1999 film The Virgin Suicides.

Through the use of both historical and contemporary examples, Anderson is able to give the viewer an appreciation for the rituals that define both individuals and cultures. The exhibit examines the way in which rituals are able to evolve, while preserving some sort of cultural integrity.

In the 21st century, the concept of identity has become increasingly personal; people create their own image and do what they are personally passionate about. The years of living lives based on the past seem distant and foreign, yet in truth, people are inherently bound to the past. Rituals become the glue that both links people to their heritage and inhibits them from recreating their identities.

Anderson’s exhibit offers an interesting perspective that is critical at times and celebratory at others. The range of rituals that are studied within the displays ensures that the exhibit resonates with a wide variety of patrons from all walks of life.