Places of worship

Geraldine Kendall, 24.07.2014
What role should religion play in museums?
I’ve just joined the Museums Journal fold after a few years of being freelance and one of my first outings was to a meeting last Friday for Museums Association (MA) members at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.

The idea behind the meetings is to tell members about what the MA is doing policy-wise and give everyone a voice and a sense of ownership in the running of the association – it’s also a brilliant chance to mingle and put faces to names.

It happened to be the most sweltering day of the year so far, 31 degrees, and it was great to see how many people had braved the city’s sauna-like public transport system to be there (perhaps it was the promise of a couple of hours in a cool, dark lecture theatre that sealed the deal).

I was even more impressed to see how engaged everyone was - up for a good debate and willing to share examples of practice, and definitely not afraid to ask us some tricky questions.

It was interesting that the meeting was in London – the MA has been vocal recently about the need for public funders to address the imbalance in funding between the capital and the English regions, the extent of which was laid bare in the Rebalancing our Cultural Capital and Place reports.

The MA’s president David Anderson outlined some of those figures in his opening address and I was curious to see how Londoners would respond to the findings. On an individual scale, museums everywhere are struggling and the capital has seen its share of cuts and closures - so would people be on the defensive?

That wasn’t the case at all; if anything, some felt the MA hadn’t taken an assertive enough stance on the issue – one delegate argued that language like ‘rebalancing’ is too soft, and sector bodies like the MA need to be prepared to fight for a better funding deal all round. The museum sector is sometimes criticised for being too meek, and it was good to hear people speaking out.

The discussion got even livelier when we came to the subject of ethics.  The MA is just about to launch into a wholesale review of the code of ethics, which will expand the ethical responsibilities museums have to visitors and the wider public.

To get us all thinking we were posed a real-life conundrum that one museum had encountered: a fundamentalist religious group that preaches against evolution has offered a substantial sum of money to hold a religious service in the museum. Saying yes would help the museum connect with a hard-to-reach community but could compromise its own ideals and damage its reputation – so what’s the best course of action?

My first instinct was that the museum should turn the offer down. Museums are founded on secular ideals and are some of the few public buildings whose core function is not religious or commercial.

But as we heard people’s responses from around the room, some fascinating examples almost succeeded in changing my mind.

One person referenced the British Museum’s exhibition on the Hajj a few years back, which set aside a prayer space for Islamic worship and in doing so, succeeded in opening up a dialogue between communities and creating a moving experience for Muslim and non-Muslim visitors alike.

Another delegate spoke about welcoming a group of nuns to bless a religious artefact in the collection - a meaningful gesture to the nuns that also enriched the museum’s knowledge of the object.

We discovered the aim of the exercise in the end: the code can help, but often, ethics are a grey area that comes down to individual judgement and circumstance.

Secularism, rationalism and other ‘isms’ are important – but sometimes pragmatism rules the day.


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Chris Wood
MA Member
28.07.2014, 11:09
I would disagree that museums are founded on purely secular ideals - many were founded on ideals that are essentially Christian. Today, Western museums have come to see themselves as secular institutions, effectively adopting the philosophy of a post-Christian society without analysing the roots of that philosophy. Some people in museums are extremely dogmatic about their secularism too.

Yet, if museums as public institutions in our multicultural society reject religious perspectives as outside our remit, then we exclude a very large part of that society, which surely is unsustainable, and unethical.

That said, care must be taken to protect the collection and the museum's reputation. There are many excellent examples from Britain and around the world of good work with relgious/faith groups and themes. There have been well-received exhibitions such as the BM's on the Hajj or Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery's Art of Faith in 2010. In many places, shrines have been set up in museums, statues are venerated and so on. Indeed, there is the view that museums themselves are temples of culture, places where humanity's cultural treasures are honoured in a way open to all in a multicultural world.

However, all of these examples relate to the museum's collection, history or multicultural role. One has to ask why the fundamentalist group in the conundrum wanted to hold a service in the museum. Was it to venerate an artefact or shrine housed in the museum? (Probably not.) Was it to contribute to the multicultural spirit of the place? Or was it to use its service to appropriate the cultural kudos of the museum and perhaps even attempt to subvert the museum's presentation of science and free-thought?

One could take this further. Many museums have Christmas carol singing events which are presented as being for everyone, yet are actually specifically Christian. I'm not knocking carol services, if done well, but there's less readiness to celebrate other faiths' festivals and there can also be an expectation that staff will participate regardless of their faith (or none).

More than pragmatism, I would say that sensitivity and thoughtfulness are essential.
29.07.2014, 10:56
There's an interesting discussion about this on the MA’s LinkedIn page:

Reposted from there: My initial piece was a little longer and would have answered some of the questions you raised but unfortunately I had to cut it down for space. The part I should have left in is that I certainly don't believe religion has no place at all in museums - not only is it a massive part of many collections, but as someone rightly pointed out, it would be very foolish and shortsighted for any museum to reject religious perspectives when religion has been the foundation of so much human knowledge, art, philosophy, history etc.

But I'd argue that there's a difference between inviting and listening to different religious perspectives and allowing active worship - by 'secular', I meant that a museum is not a religious or consecrated building. Would other visitors feel alienated if they knew it had been given over for a religious service? And how does one decide what religious group to allow in (what if it was one of the more cult-like religions?) or what kind of service to allow? (One example we discussed in the meeting - a prayer service might be acceptable, but what about an exorcism?) I think the real dilemma is not that it shouldn't be allowed at all, but how/where one should draw the line.

In this case, apparently the group wanted to hold the service at the museum purely because their congregation had expanded in size and they couldn't find a large enough space elsewhere. When I spoke about pragmatism I was really speaking with that example in mind - in the end, the museum allowed the service to go ahead, but outside working hours and with little publicity.

I must admit, I didn't really leave the debate with any firm ideas about the right answer - but maybe sensitivity and thoughtfulness combined with a healthy dose of pragmatism would be the way forward..