Religion today: Themes and issues
Religion today: Themes and issues

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Religion today: Themes and issues

1.4 The Victoria and Albert Museum's 'Sacred Spaces' exhibition

Some of these issues of representation were addressed indirectly by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2000, when an exhibition called ‘Sacred Spaces’ was mounted in conjunction with religious communities. The idea was to invite groups from different faith traditions to relate artefacts in the museum to their contemporary religious life. In practice, this had various unforeseen consequences.

The Jewish group photographed some of the objects in the museum, and then photographed similar objects being used in their synagogue. One of the Christian groups to participate was a flourishing Pentecostal Apostolic congregation, which provided photographic scenes of their vibrant church life, including worship (indicating the importance of music in this), a total immersion adult baptism and a wedding. However, for this group the Christian artefacts held by the museum – largely medieval western Catholic art and images – had no particular resonance and could not be directly related to its lived experience of Christianity. Meanwhile, after a group of Chinese Buddhists pulled out, the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), a group founded in 1968 with the specific aim of making Buddhism meaningful for a western population and keen to promote its teachings, offered to represent Buddhism. The exhibition organizer received complaints about the appropriateness of the form of Buddhism being represented by this group, and there were claims that the FWBO was a cult and should therefore not be given publicity.

Very much in the spirit of the original project, the FWBO group interacted creatively with an artefact in the museum context by setting up a richly decorated three-tiered altar in front of a display case containing a twelfth-century Chinese painted wooden statue of Guan Yin, Bodhisattva of Compassion (Figure 1).(Guan Yin is also known by the name of Kuan Yin.)

This both restored the statue's original function and demonstrated how such images are still treated in a devotional manner. On the top shelf of the altar was an empty wooden bowl between two gold candles, while on the bottom shelf there was another wooden bowl containing paper flowers. A sign invited visitors who wished ‘to make an offering to this shrine’ to place in the top bowl a flower taken from the bottom bowl. Some of the curatorial staff were unhappy about the setting up of the altar, considering the museum an inappropriate context for this, despite being aware of the statue's original devotional purpose. This can be contrasted with the situation in some Indian museums, where statues of the Buddha and deities that are exhibits are nevertheless treated with great devotion, and flowers are left in front of them by visitors. To state the obvious, then, ideas of appropriate behaviour in relation to devotional objects vary according to context, and what is being represented by and to whom.

Figure 1
Figure 1 The installation of a shrine to Guan Yin in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo: Eithne Nightingale.
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