Working life | 'Presenting such a complex concept in a museum was a challenge' - Museums Association

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Working life | ‘Presenting such a complex concept in a museum was a challenge’

Senior curator Amina Wright on how belief and religion are represented in the Bishop Auckland's new Faith Museum
Religion Working life
Amina Wright
Senior curator at the Faith Museum in County Durham, which opened in Auckland Castle last October

How did you get involved with the Faith Museum?

My professional background is in historic buildings and art collections; my love of art grew with my interest in the Christian traditions I have inherited. Curious to understand how my cultural heritage could benefit others, I took a break from full-time work to study for an MA in Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London.

I was studying when I saw the Faith Museum job advertised. It was far from home, but matched my experience – and I had been following the Auckland Project for years. A few hours after handing in my dissertation, I was offered the job.

What does your day-to-day role involve?

Before the museum opened, my role was behind the scenes, working with a team of curators, registrars and our designer Studio MB to build a collection through acquisitions, loans and artist commissions.

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We have drawn out stories from those objects and presented them in a two-storey museum space that combines a late medieval wing of Auckland Castle with a beautiful extension.

Most of my time is now spent training volunteers, showing visitors round, presenting the project to colleagues and responding to an unexpectedly high level of media interest. The behind-the-scenes work doesn’t end because we will be constantly rotating and refreshing our displays, and building the collection.

Faith is a deep and complex subject; how have you approached it curatorially?

There are as many definitions of faith as there are experiences of faith. Presenting such a complex concept in a museum was a challenge. As curators, we had two starting points. First were our personal religious traditions.

Our second inspiration was Francisco de Zurbarán’s paintings of Jacob and his Twelve Sons in the castle’s Long Dining Room. Jacob is praised in the New Testament as one of the “cloud of witnesses” who “lived by faith”.

With thoughtful interpretation, artefacts can also be witness to the faith of those individuals or societies who made and used them.

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How did you decide which questions to pose to visitors in the museum space? 

The museum opens with three universal questions that, in one way or another, we all ask ourselves every day: 'Am I alone?',  'How do I live?'  and 'Where do I belong?'

We wanted to introduce the concept of faith with some questions that faith both stimulates and answers, and illustrated these with artefacts from the deep past that represent the search for the Other, ethical living, and community identity. 

The questions, based on key elements of spirituality, were distilled by some of our staff from their combined spiritual experience and theological and historical knowledge.   

Why does art play such a vital role in the museum?

The arts and faith have always been closely related. The museum’s oldest object – a big neolithic cup-and-ring marked stone from Gainford in County Durham – shows how the creative act of carving concentric circles into stone gave meaning to the lives of people living 6,000 years ago, and connected them with something beyond the ordinary.

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Music, ritual spaces, artefacts and ornaments remain an essential expression of faith in every culture.

It was important to allow space in the museum to show what faith looks like in Britain today, as well as in the past, but we wanted to present this in an experiential way without the curator’s voice intruding. 

So we have given the upper half of the museum to 10 artists from different backgrounds working in a variety of media, and interpreted their work in their own words.

What's the response been like from visitors? 

Incredible. We had set out to stimulate curiosity and present new ways of seeing things, so I was nervous about how people would respond. So far, every comment has expressed excitement, surprise and wonder, and there have been some powerful emotional responses, something I hadn’t expected. 

Visitors love the variety the museum offers, the quality of the objects and the combination of old and new. They are so proud to see a museum of this calibre in Bishop Auckland.

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