Exhibition to offer rare peek at secret societies
Since the beginning of time, it has been in man's nature for those of like-minded interests to form societies and clubs. Evidence of this universal inclination ranges from Yale University's Skull and Bones to Preston Jones' famous Texas-set play "The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia," depicting the demise of a sect of the Ku Klux Klan.
Based on this concept, the College of Charleston's Halsey Gallery, which specializes in contemporary art, will present the exhibition "Oft Unseen: Art From the Lodge and Other Secret Societies." The exhibition opens Friday and runs through March 20.
The extensive display will include the Bruce Webb collection of art, artifacts and ephemera from the Freemasons and other secret fraternal organizations, including the Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Knights Templar, Order of Red Men and many others.
Charleston was the birthplace of American Scottish Rite Freemasonry, which celebrated its bicentennial in 2001. In light of this, the Charleston Scottish Rite Center has provided additional materials for the exhibit.
Buff Ross, the Halsey curator who has organized the project, says, "While not all of these organizations consider themselves truly secret societies, they can all be considered societies with secrets. This exhibition offers a rare glimpse into the visual components of these mysterious and commonly misunderstood organizations."
Ross adds, "Freemasonry has often been described as a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated with symbols. Masonic symbols and influence have extended far beyond the walls of the physical 'lodge' and continue to permeate numerous aspects of our collective material, cultural and social landscape."
Critics through the years have often pointed out the downside of the atmosphere of exclusion that fraternities often have fostered.
Explaining the intricacies of the various fraternal groups, Dr. Frank J. Karpiel, visiting assistant professor in the department of history at the college, will give a lecture on "The International Lodge: Fraternal Societies at the Center and Periphery of Empire from 1750-1988" at 4 p.m. Friday.
Following Karpiel's lecture, Don Burbidge will discuss "The Masonic History of Charleston." Both lectures will take place in room 309 of the Simons Center for the Arts and are free to the public.
Also, an opening reception will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. at the gallery located on the first floor in the Simons Center for the Arts. At 6 p.m., collector Bruce Webb will deliver a talk on the history and significance of the objects on display.
A Charlestonian, Burbidge is a member of Summerville Lodge No. 234 and the Scottish Rite Bodies of Charleston. He is also a member of the Scottish Rite Research Society and has had several articles and photographs published in the Scottish Rite Journal.
"The first Mason organization started in 1735 in what was then Charles Towne," says Burbidge. "From day one, the major goal of these societies has been the welfare of children. For example, the Scottish Rites sponsors centers for children with language disorders in Columbia and Greenville. And one is in the planning stages to be located at a site on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard."
Burbidge says he became interested in fraternal orders more than 10 years ago when he was hired to take pictures during an Omar Shrine convention at Gaillard Auditorium and learned that the group was raising money for children being treated in a burn center.
Historical references indicate that by the turn of the 20th century more than 300 different fraternal organizations existed in America with 6 million members. One prominent Mason was President George Washington. While many of these societies no longer exist, much of the historical material surrounding them remains intact.
Webb, who is from Waxahachie, Texas, has been amassing items for 15 years and has organized a collection of immense diversity and historical significance, according to Ross.
Items from Webb's collection form the core of the exhibition, with supplementary artifacts provided by the Charleston Scottish Rite Center.
Among the objects on display are elaborately painted backdrops, banners, models, ephemera reflecting bygone rituals, decorative woodwork, intricate theatrical regalia, masks and detailed charts, most dating from the 19th to the 20th centuries.
Ross says that while there is no overt connection between the "Oft Unseen" exhibit and Dan Brown's best-selling book "The Da Vinci Code," he senses the book has created a climate of curiosity as to the nature of fraternal orders.
"The focus on the power and meaning of symbols, their origins and how they can still be found throughout our current society should pique the visitor's interest in material presented in the show," says Ross. "Symbolism along with allegory is critical to all of these societies as a method of conveying certain moral lessons; the artworks and artifacts in this show form a stunning visual record of this means of communication both veiled and revealed."
The curator says that the fact that these materials are being publicly displayed should dispel some of the more ominous and sinister misconceptions about them.
"Throughout history, many members have been wrongly persecuted and defamed by a variety of governmental and religious sects," says Ross. "I would hate for 'The Da Vinci Code' to unintentionally stir up these sentiments again. It is worth noting that these organizations do a great amount of socially valuable charity work, which positively impacts the lives of millions."
Halsey Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday or by appointment by calling 953-5680. There is no charge to visit the gallery.
Dottie Ashley is the arts editor. Contact her at 937-5704 or dashley @postandcourier.com. The Post and Courier, Feb. 15, 2004 (Charleston, SC)
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