Museums have a responsibility to help visitors understand religion - Museums Association

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Museums have a responsibility to help visitors understand religion

Network will help tackle ‘difficult’ subject
Profile image for Crispin Pain
Crispin Pain
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If the 3,000 or so museums in the UK, there can be very few that have nothing at all in their collections that relates to religion.

To the surprise of some old-fashioned secularists, religion today matters terribly throughout the world, and helping visitors to understand the subject is, to my mind, a hugely important responsibility for museums. Yet few museums seem willing to take up the challenge. It’s not just a matter of a simple introduction to Hinduism, or a label to explain a mitre, a mihrab or a murti. Rather, it is helping people with no religious background understand what “devout” feels like inside and helping devout people of one faith empathise with those of others.

But things are improving. There have been several imaginative exhibitions in recent years addressing different aspects of religion (think of the Hajj exhibition at the British Museum in 2012 and Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic, which opens at the museum on 19 May). 

On display at Feminine Power: The Divine to the Demonic, at the British Museum: Queen of the night relief, (detail) c. 1750 BCE, Iraq, painted clay © The Trustees of the British Museum

Many learning teams offer religious education for school visits and there are now several books about religion in museums. But apart from initiatives such as the Faith in Birmingham gallery at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and, of course, St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow, permanent displays that address religious practice and belief, rather than just art or culture, are still few and far between.

Why is that? Is it just academic tradition? Ethnography and archaeological galleries quite often try to explain religious practice, if not always belief, while social history displays rarely seem to do so, and art galleries hardly ever cover the subject. 

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Or is it that most museum workers have no religious background or belief and, therefore, simply don’t consider the matter. After all, 52% of people in the UK describe themselves as having no religion, and attendance at church is low.

Another reason may be that religion can be perceived as “difficult”. It can be easy to upset people and even cause real hurt, however much public consultation you do. Perhaps it is easier just to avoid trouble? 

Yet another explanation is simply the number of issues that you need to consider before planning to interpret religion in a museum. What sort of religion, and what aspect, do you want to show? How do you start the research? What objects can you use? Are they holy, powerful, frightening? 
How will visitors respond? Will they want to pray or make offerings? Will they get angry? 

But people who have done it describe developing a display on religion as exciting and fascinating. That, as well as the challenge and the difficulties, is why the Religion, Collections and Heritage Group has been set up. This Subject Specialist Network is here to help people exchange ideas and experiences. It is for museum curators, archivists, priests and volunteers – anyone who looks after religious things. One of the group’s main roles is to  explore collaboration between heritage organisations, religious organisations and, in particular, communities.

We are holding our first (virtual) conference on 30 June and 1 July. We already have a training and seminar programme, and are planning a major mapping project that will aim to identify where all these religious objects are located. 

Crispin Paine is the co-chair of the Religion, Collections and Heritage Group

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