The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

28 March 2012

A Thirteenth Sounding: Religious Freedom in Museums

A Modern Utopia?

In Thomas Moore's vision of utopia, no man was to be punished for their religious beleifs, and Utopia was defined in part as a site wherein people were able to live side by side. How, asks Stephanie Berns, can museums facilitate the creation of such an environment? Particularly as they are often conceptualised as secular places - but they are often engaged with in terms of the religious sensibilities of visitors - including atheists.

The founder of the British Museum, Hans Sloane, wanted to glorify God, verify his faith, and to 'confute' atheism. This seems, perhaps, surprising in the context of the Enlightenment. Yet Catholicism, during the 1800s, was barred from the museum - even in terms of the staff. The national museums in the country are very much informed by the pressures of religion, and the government, which masks the Protestant influence which lies behind a number of them - particularly in the case of the British Museum.

When an exhibition, then, displays one particular faith, is it possible for it to inculcate tolerance and freedom. Her case study, in this instance, is Treasures of Heaven, which ran from June to October last year. It provided, Steph says, a relatively peaceful space in which people might enact rituals of reverence in relation to relics and objects. Most of the visitors, indeed, were catholic or orthodox. Those who were not religious were able to engage with the objects on a more aesthetic level.

In order to encourage an atmosphere of reverence, music was used, piping the sound of the medieval world into the contemporary space. For some, this was disturbing, particularly the more traditional visitors.

In interviewing visitors to Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, currently on display, Steph found that of those visitors who were not Muslim, many of them wishes to attend to learn more about the faith so that they could understand the cultures and backgrounds of their friends.

But this exhibition was accused of being too safe - it did not question the events of the Koran or the veracity of the objects. Does this blur the borders between reality and fiction, confusing history, and undermining the veracity of the museum as an authority. But perhaps, in the current political climate, such compromises had to be made. It is difficult to say, however, whether such spaces can ever be safe, given that visitors can always respond in their own way, can always be offended by display styles or texts, or indeed by the very objects themselves.

How can we understand museums and religion today? Calling the museum a multifaith space negates the presence of the non-religious. What about considering them a post-secular space? Above, Steph has managed to show that in many cases museums have never been secular. What, then, about post-religion? For many individuals, the boundaries between religious and secular life are unclear.

She proposes, then, that museums are not in a new age, but that we have new ways of understanding them in their phenomena. The secular museum is an illusion. The museum can be many things to many people – even those which are dedicated to a singular faith. We have to recognize the agencies of all the actors taking part in the creation of museal meaning.

We need, certainly, to understand that museums have ideological backgrounds, and we need to recognize that. Whether those ideologies should be given power in civil life is a question currently in debate in the UK. It's a difficult question to answer. Who has the power to define toleration, and how?

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