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'Rites of Passage' Exhibit Celebrates Cultures Of Southeast San Diego

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April 4, 2013 1:16 p.m.


Rex Garniewicz, Chief Operating Officer, San Diego Museum of Man

Katherine Yee, Creative Director, San Diego Museum of Man

Related Story: 'Rites of Passage' Exhibit Celebrates Cultures Of Southeast San Diego


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Birth, death, marriage, becoming an adult, all are markers that chart the progress and the boundaries of our lives. These milestones have been shared by different cultures through history. But they can be observed in very different ways. An exhibit at the San Diego museum of man presents the various ways that rates of passage are celebrated. With an emphasis on the different customs and ceremonies observed by cultural communities living here in San Diego. I'd like to welcome my guests, Rex Garniewicz is chief operating officer of the San Diego museum of man. Good to see you.

GARNIEWICZ: Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Katherine Yee is here, creative director of the museum of man. Welcome.

YEE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Now, this exhibit, rites of passage, it really is the first of its kind in San Diego. Can you tell us about the collaboration effort behind it?

GARNIEWICZ: It's really exciting. It's probably one of the first of its kind nationally. The thing that makes it so unique is the process has been community-driven. The community has said we want to establish this relationship with the museums of Balboa Park and we want to tell our story. And to be involved in that process, to be honored and invited to collaborate with the community and develop an exhibit like this is really exciting.

CAVANAUGH: Didn't the exhibit first get shown at the Joan Jacobs center?

GARNIEWICZ: Yeah, it did. And one of the things about that, the center has transformed that neighborhood that was once one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in San Diego. And now the community members have come together and they were asked what they wanted, and they said they didn't just want a museum. And that's, like, the easy thing. Oh, build a museum. They wanted a relationship with other museums, and they wanted to build this bridge between their community and Balboa Park, one of the jewels of San Diego. So they invited the museums in to collaborate with them. So that process is really great.

CAVANAUGH: Catherine, how did that process actually occur? Who was the theme of rites passage selected?

YEE: Well, as the community came in and they kind of shared their different cultures and talked about different artifacts that they could contribute to an exhibit, it became really clear that there was this common thread that ran between all the different cultures and that could be shared through this rites of passage exhibit. So while all these different communities have different traditions and they experience them at different times in their lives, there's a lot of common threads between them. Like birth and marriage and graduation and these different ceremonies.

CAVANAUGH: So one community might bring in something that they brought from their country of origin that marked a birth, and somebody else would bring in a christening robe, and then you would realize oh, okay, fine, these are two different ways to celebrate a common event. Is that how the idea of, all right, we can get these objects that are going to delineate how people actually celebrate these rites of passage in their lives?

YEE: Yes, essentially.

CAVANAUGH: How much community input did shape this show?

YEE: A lot of community input.

YEE: It was pretty much a collaboration between the community and the museums. And the interesting part is the elevation of the artifacts from the community standing inside of a museum and kind of saying we have museum artifacts and put them on this pedestal, but our community objects are just as important especially to the people who own them. Like, my graduation gown is really important to me because it was part of my life event, it's really what I value, what I remember. And having them stand in a museum gives the sense of pride, like, okay, every event that I've experienced in my life is really important.

CAVANAUGH: Not just individually, but also to the community as well.

YEE: Uh-huh. And now that the visitors get to come in and see all these cultural practices that our community of San Diego is a part of.

CAVANAUGH: Rex, it had to be organized. So the rites of passage is split into four stages. Tell us about each of them.

GARNIEWICZ: There's so many rites of passage that we had to consolidate them into four stages. So the stages are actually combined. They're birth and youth, coming of age, identity and status, and death and beyond. And each. These sections talks about the ceremonies, the rituals that take place as someone moves from birth and youth through adulthood, through old age, and eventually death and what cultures believe is beyond that. And the coming of age one has such powerful images in it, one of the central pieces is a blackfoot war shirt. But it also talks about how military service is meaningful throughout these cultures of San Diego and it has contemporary airforce and Navy uniforms that are from the community. To see things that we think of as rites of passage for others juxtaposed against what we think are rites of passage for ourselves makes us think of them in different ways.

CAVANAUGH: Like a letter jacket from a high school.

GARNIEWICZ: Yeah, we actually have one of those in the exhibit.

CAVANAUGH: Now, all the rites of passage are celebrated in different ways, and some of the categories are a little different. I'm thinking of pregnancy rituals, fertility festivals. What in the exhibit is striking to you, Catherine?

YEE: Well, there's a lot of great pieces in this exhibit, of the key things is a lot of -- my favorites are the Lao bride and groom outfits.

CAVANAUGH: We've been talking about the different cultures in San Diego. What cultures are represented?

YEE: Cultures from all over the world. We have Lou, Filipino, even American. Everything is represented equally, and we tried to give even a good piece of the exhibit.

CAVANAUGH: And did the decision come from the community to highlight the ceremonies that are celebrated by communities that have transplanted themselves to San Diego?

GARNIEWICZ: Yeah, the community made those decisions, and they produced the artifacts, the story, there's also great video and photographers talking about these ceremonies. And people presenting their views.

CAVANAUGH: I'm going to ask about a couple of the things on display. There's a Sulawesi burial door.

GARNIEWICZ: Well, that's in the death and beyond section. And it represents -- it's a way to show how cultures deal with the after life with status, what's important to present, whether it's wealth or power or food for the after life. All of these cultures that are in that section will represent something absolutely different, but it all shows how we still care about our ancestors and respect them and want to see them be successful in the after life and for their descendants to be successful in their current lives.

CAVANAUGH: I understand that there's a circumcision stool that is quite popular in this display. Catherine, can you tell us where this is from and why?

YEE: Well, circumcision is definitely a rite of passage that's practiced in many different cultures, including female circumcision, and they touch on the fact that it's a touchy subject right now within the panel.

GARNIEWICZ: That was one of the really interesting things in the community partnership is we had to talk about some very difficult topics like initiation into gangs, family circumcision, how to communicate what it's like to come out to your parents and to your friends, and that's one of the things that was really interesting to me in that process. And so circumcision was one of those things that we don't think about being -- happening to people as they become adults.


GARNIEWICZ: And so the stool, when you read that story, you're, like, wow! Things are different in Tanzania than they are in our culture. Yet you request also see how that fits into their trajectory of moving through life.

CAVANAUGH: Now, all of these exhibits are not from individual collections. People's cherished items. They are also -- there are some contributions from the museums in Balboa Park adding to these exhibits?

GARNIEWICZ: Yeah, and Catherine, you might want to add in some to this too, but when I was participating in it, the community said, well, they started with their objects, and they said well, what about the museum partners? Like don't you have anything that you want to include in the exhibit? So they kind of came to us and looked through our collections and saw these things that they thought represented their cultures. Or things that were similar to their culture that should be included in the exhibit. So they got to choose some from museum collections and within the exhibit we have objects from the San Diego museum of art, the Mingei international museum, and the museum of man.

CAVANAUGH: And you give me an example of what was taken from one of the museums in Balboa Park?

YEE: Oh, yeah. These caps that were created for little children, and we have two of them on display, they were created to ward off evil spirits.

CAVANAUGH: Now, how did you go through what seemed to be appropriate?

YEE: Our coming of age section is very large, filled with community object, the objects they kept for birth and youth and death and beyond were a little lighter on the community side. And so we just filled them with objects from the museums.

CAVANAUGH: I want to hear from both of you, let me start with you, Catherine, what do we learn from this exhibit? Do we learn that the different San Diego cultures are more alike or their differences? What do you take away?

YEE: I think there's a different appreciation for the other cultures and their ceremonies. These are beautiful ceremonies that we get to witness and learn about and that's really engaging and fun at the same time.


GARNIEWICZ: I think it exposes people to the diversity of cultures that are in San Diego, and I think that's great. So there's a lot of things that show slight differences, but when you go through the exhibit, you actually realize that we're all the same. We just do it in slightly different ways. And so it has that kind of duality that I think is really interesting.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm so interested in hearing about the conversations and the discussions that these exhibits engendered in the people who are putting it together. Whether or not this would be offensive to that culture or this culture or the other culture. How did you make those decisions to embrace some things that perhaps you found were difficult?

GARNIEWICZ: Well, it's really interesting because when you think of a collaboration your first response is oh, that'll be easier. And actually it turns out to be much more difficult. It took us over two years to develop this exhibit. Whenever we dealt with a topic like that, we had discussions with the community. And there might have been 30 or 40 people that had very different views on how we should present that. So one of the great things about being a museum participant in that is I learned a tremendous amount about these communities. And that's very different than the traditional museum presentation where a curator is knowledgeable and is the scholar and tells things the way they think they should be. This was curated by the community, and they told us what we think we should do want

CAVANAUGH: Do you see considering this long complicated process, is this the start of more collaborations?

YEE: Yes, definitely. We're under another collaboration in the CCA partnership, and it's going to be about hair.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, fascinating.

YEE: Which has already generated a lot of excitement among the community and the museums, and we're going to talk about how many different cultural practices use hair, really.

CAVANAUGH: Really! Rites of passage will be at the San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park, beginning on April 6, and it's going to run through October 31.