2.3 Is religion a museum piece?
We have used the video sequence below to highlight the emic/etic problem and we would like you to carry out a short exercise using it to consolidate your understanding of these terms.
The video introduces St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow, which has been described as the first public museum of religion in the world. Do note, however, that the Museum of Religions at the University of Marburg, Germany was founded in 1927 by Rudolf Otto. It contains a considerable number of artefacts and iconographic materials drawn from religions across the world (information provided by Professor Michael Pye, University of Marburg). There is also the Lenin Museum of Religion and Atheism in Moscow, but that institution makes no attempt to present religion in either an objective or comparative fashion. Of course, no museum can be described as value-free; none are objective or exist outside their social, political and funding contexts. The St Mungo Museum was not a planned museum: the building was constructed as a visitor's centre for Glasgow Cathedral, with which it shares a site, but the Cathedral abandoned the project owing to financial difficulties. This left the city council with a functionless, half-completed building in an area of Glasgow visited by many tourists. Finally, it was decided to use the already existing resources in the Glasgow Museums' collections to open a specialist centre around the theme of religion.
The Museum is divided into three parts: one houses a collection of religious art from various traditions (Figure 2), another is devoted to the human lifecycle as it is understood/celebrated across a range of religious traditions, and the third concentrates on the history of religion in Scotland. While you may initially see the museum depicted in the video as a tranquil, typical and uncontested example of public education, in reality it has been the centre of heated debate since it opened. Especially soon after its opening, the Museum has generated considerable controversy, ranging from complaints about perceived unequal treatment of traditions, to actual physical attacks on exhibits.
Some members of particular traditions have complained about being included in a comparative display with other religions that they consider to be ‘false’, while other members of the same groups have felt that their traditions were under-represented in the displays. An interesting feature of each room is the bulletin boards, where visitors are actively encouraged to respond to the exhibits. The notes make it clear that religion and how it is represented is still capable of rousing passionate feelings in many. One offended visitor in 1993 wrote, ‘St. Mungo's; where Satan is free to run rampant’. However, the majority of comments are positive.
As the senior curator of Glasgow Museums explained, the St Mungo Museum set out to do something different, something contentious:
If the aim was to communicate something of the meaning of the objects, we had to reverse the usual process in museums of draining them of their dangerous meanings to render them safely aesthetic, historical or anthropological. In the case of religion ‘meaning’ has an emotional and spiritual dimension that can be described much more powerfully by those who experience it than those who have simply studied it.
(O'Neill, 1994, p.28)
As a result of this approach, the Museum decided to interview ‘ordinary’ believers and incorporate their comments into the displays, rather than relying on the views of priests, religious professionals or scholars. The Museum wanted to portray the traditions sympathetically, yet retain the right to criticize: this has proved a difficult balance to achieve. For example, the owners of material that had once belonged to the missionary and explorer David Livingstone threatened to withdraw it unless the Museum altered the text of a caption that expressed the view that missionary work had damaged indigenous cultures. Others have shown offence at photographs of the face of a girl undergoing ritual circumcision; still others have physically attacked non-Christian artefacts, damaging an important bronze image of the Hindu god Shiva (Figure 3). Some cathedrals have signs reminding visitors that they are places of worship, not museums. In contrast, St Mungo's is a museum where, as with the Victoria and Albert example shown in Figure 1, some people interact with the exhibits in a devotional manner. The museum's stated goal, however, is a more neutral one (or is it?): ‘to reflect the central importance of religion in human life’ (Arthur, 1993, p.232).
Please watch the video now. After you have watched it, think about the questions below. Don't try to answer them all; choose one or two that you find interesting, and spend a few minutes thinking about them. Then try to think about your chosen questions again from the point of view of someone whose perspective on religion is very different from your own.
Click below to view the video.
Transcript: Religion Today
Is the museum an example of an insider or an outsider perspective? Is there another way of categorizing its interpretative stance?
Is a ‘museum’ of religion appropriate? Do religious objects/ ideas retain their meaning in a museum setting? Doesn't putting religion in a museum suggest that it is no longer relevant?
Do the curators have a duty to represent traditions as they wish to be represented, or as they are understood by outside experts?
To what extent should such a museum bow to pressure from traditions, either to change emphasis, or to increase their representation? Are judgements about ‘balance’ really covert judgements about value or importance?
What drives people to attack religious artefacts? (Both the painting Christ of St John of the Cross by Salvador Dali and the eighteenth-century sculpture of Shiva have been damaged by visitors who violently objected to them. Other objections have come from an aesthetic position: the Museum displays not only world-class works of art, but also devotional items that to some might seem tacky, but which have meaning for their users.)
To what extent should we study only the ‘best’ of a tradition, whether that be in its devotional writing, its art or its styles of worship?
Scholarly writings on religion normally suggest some kind of ‘answer’ to the questions asked, or at least provide a response. I don't want to in this case, as the whole purpose of the exercise is to get you to think about the depiction and portrayal of religion in a more self-conscious way than usual. Thus, there are not any answers as such, but if you have reflected more deeply on an issue that could easily be taken for granted, then you have succeeded, and the purpose of the exercise has been fulfilled.