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

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Religion today: Themes and issues

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.

Figure 2
Figure 2 Publicity material for the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. Glasgow Museums: The St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art.

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).

Figure 3
Figure 3 Shiva Nataraja, c.1800, bronze. Glasgow Museums: The St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art.


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.

Download this video clip.Video player: Religion Today
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Transcript: Religion Today

The museum arose out of what I think of as a very Glaswegian mixture of pragmatism and principle. It was originally intended to be a visitor centre for the cathedral, the cathedral ran out of funds, so the city rescued the building and asked us to turn it into a museum. I suggested that it should be a museum of religion, because I believe that museums are capable of addressing really important issues in society…. and there is no more important subject than the meaning of life.
The museum represents the 6 main world religions that are present in Glasgow, although the museum does look at the importance of religion across the world and across time.
it was a problem in the museum making sure we didn’t over represent religions that were, how shall I say, good at artefacts. It could have been a very good Catholic, Hindu museum with a fairly strong Buddhist representation.
The difficulty in representing aniconic religions meant that we had to be very creative in searching out objects, representing Judaism with Dora Holzhandler and representing Islam with this amazing painting by Ahmed Moustafa where the calligraphic tradition of Islam and its geometric tradition are unified in a really visually very powerful piece where the 99 Attributes of Allah are represented in the work.
We made a deliberate decision to include some of the very best art we had in the collection and very ordinary mundane things that would in art galleries be considered kitsch and tacky in one place. Partly to confront people with the aesthetic decisions they make….But its also about trying to represent belief…. taking objects into a museum usually reduces their meaning - they lose their original meaning whether that be historical or spiritual or religious. We wanted to put them in a museum where its not exactly a spiritual space but we wanted to make it possible for believers to have a spiritual experience here. So it blurs the boundary between the spiritual and the secular quite consciously and it tries to restore some resonance of the original meaning back to the objects which most art galleries don't do.
I find as a Hindu representation of Hinduism, Hindu gods in St Mungo’s very appealing because as a Hindu if I walk in to St Mungo’s I find my deities, my gods who sit in my house and I pray them, finding them sitting there is something that establishes a link between me and the museum.
Well having gods outside temple does not mean that they have lost their sanctity. Yes, when you go to museum, you go with a different frame of mind, you go with a different focus, you don’t go to pray there. But to find them sitting there inevitably, when I go into St M’s and I find that Shiva’s statue is there, I take my shoes off, so that action establishes that it hasn’t lost a sanctity….so its not going to temple, but to see a god there I would do my salutation and have the same feeling perhaps.
After we opened all the faiths had something to say about what was on display. for example in the case of Hinduism we raised the image of Shiva into a stone plinth because the Hindus felt it was disrespectful to Shiva for visitors to walk on the same level. So we did indeed include a plinth.
As the curator of this museum, my role has been to a) represent the religions accurately in an academic curatorial detached way, but also to represent them in such a way that people who believe, represent them in a sense from the inside in a way that believers would recognise as well.
The museum has provoked violent reactions and including one object being attacked - but mainly among fundamentalists and the values of the museum are civic values where everybody is entitled to live together with mutual respect. so inevitably people who believe that their religion is the true religion to the exclusion of all others, have reacted either in disagreement or in rare cases with violent anger against the museum.
For me the truth claims of Christianity are exclusive. That means that is it presents us with a world view that is self contained and objectively true to the exclusion of other truth claims and other world views. that means that when its placed alongside other religions with equal weight, my concern as an evangelical Christian my concern would be that that presents Christianity as one among many paths to God - a picture that I couldn’t accept.
For some people the museum has posed a particular threat to their faith and they have carried out acts of vandalism within the museum. The most notable act of vandalism was the damage inflicted on the image of the Hindu god Shiva which was pushed over in front of members of the public and this was particularly insulting to members of the Hindu community who’d performed a ceremony of welcome.
we thought there would be a conflict between monotheism and ‘paganism’. …. We actually thought it would be the African screen which is a ‘pagan’ object in room next to amazing pieces of Islamic and Christian art.
I would say I was saddened rather than surprised or shocked because I do know that there would be people who would find there were other religions taking over their religion sometimes. And they might find that here is another religion from another part of the world being represented so strongly in their museum is not something that is acceptable to everybody.
In both the gallery of Religious Life and the Scottish galleries we have what are known as talk back boards and these have been elements of these galleries right from the very beginning…..
One of the important things about the talk-back boards is that it allows visitors to interact with each other and people who write the comments sometimes have another comment added on from another visitor who agrees or disagrees and sometimes real debates can rage through these boards. A debate raged for a long time about the photograph showing female genital mutilation and also one raged about sin and one raged on about truth, so they are fascinating things and a different element for our visitors to explore.
We do continually add to the museum, and this in fact is based on the talk-back boards - we do have talk back boards with comments that complain about the lack of material from the pagan traditions and so as a result we added a tree a cluted? tree just beside the Zen garden. And a culted? tree is a place where people can hang rags, tie rags onto the tree with their own intention. As a way of leaving some thing behind to commemorate their experience in the museum. That tree was given to us by a group of pagans who’d performed a ceremony in a shopping centre in Glasgow. And I had been thinking about having a tree and just within two weeks the tree arrived, so , and visitors have responded whole heartedly to adding their own little pieces of cloth to this tree so its very much a permanent fixture in the museum.
I would say this museum is very much a living museum and can’t exist really without engaging in the reality of the society we live in. I think that is very important and this museum will never be correct and it will never be a finished religion. The museum will constantly evolve as the world of religion constantly evolves.
End transcript: Religion Today
Religion Today
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  • 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.


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