Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

Down Under

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I spent an amazing April in Australia – first just splendid holiday and visiting cousins, but then spending some time looking at museums and talking to curators and museum and religious studies lecturers. There’s a lot going on! But first impression is that the variety of people working on the variety of aspects of ‘material religion’ don’t talk to each other very much. Religious sociology, art historians, popular culture specialists, theologians, aboriginal studies specialists and so on seem to inhabit very different worlds. It hardly helps that the Australian equivalent of the RAE apparently classes material religion as a sub-set of philosophy! Of course, I only talked to a handful of people, so I could well be misled, but the suggestion of a ‘Material Religion’ conference seemed to get some positive response.

In the museum field what most fascinated this foreigner was the challenges of presenting Aboriginal heritage in a highly-charged political context, and where some of its most distinctive features are scarcely expressed in a form that can be displayed. The great challenge to an Australian museum trying to present faith traditions comes from the sacred and secret nature of many of the key objects – thechuringa – in Aboriginal tradition. As I understand it, these powerful objects embody specific places and features in the landscape, and so derive their power from the Dreaming, being sometimes seen as partaking in the actual body of the ancestral creator-being. Yet they are secret as well as sacred, only certain male elders being able of see or know about them. Modern Australian museums have accepted completely, it seems, a duty to respect this view, and modern museum ethics there forbid the contravention of Aboriginal restrictions. All churinga seem to have been removed from museum display, and very many transferred to Aboriginal groups. Given how this reinforces the dominance of particular groups – notably of old men – I wasn’t sure quite what I felt about this. It clearly makes the presentation of Aboriginal belief extra-difficult. Brave efforts, though, are made. Thus the First Peoples section of the Melbourne Museum uses a remarkable artwork – a great moving wing of light – to illustrate Bunjil the creator-eagle. IMG_7653The Heritage Centre maintained by the Aboriginal people local to Melbourne – the Koorie Heritage Centre – tells a selection of the key local creation stories in a touch-table.

A different experience was comparing the Melbourne Jewish Museum, now some ten years old, and the very new Islamic Museum. For me the former won hands down, and not because I had the privilege of being shown around by Helen Light who set it up. Both tended to major on broader cultural issues than “pure” “religion” (as if there were such a thing,) though the Jewish Museum displays a splendid collection of liturgical objects in the setting of a synagogue bema, with a view through the window of the synagogue next door, and the Islamic Museum a video of the Hajj, as one of the pillars of Islam. Neither, to my mind, really tackled their faith’s understanding of God. On the cultural side, the Jewish Museum made a real effort – especially through videoed interviews – to answer the question ‘what does in mean to you to be Jewish in Australia today?’ The Islamic Museum does try to look at Moslem history on the continent, but mainly through a video of the museum’s founder travelling through the continent to discover historic mosques and so on. Sadly this results in little more than romantic clichés about Afghani camel-drivers – one learns almost nothing about the lives of ordinary Moslems in Australia. IMG_7638Similarly, the Gulf origins of the museum’s funding shows in a distinct Arab cultural gloss, where in Australia one might expect an Indonesian one. That is, if Moslem Australians have really not yet had time to create a true Australian Islam.

Both museums struggle with controversial issues. At a time when so much of world Islam seems to be falling into a more and more vicious civil war, and Muslim response to globalisation and modernity seems to grow daily more fragmented and angry, it’s odd to see the Islamic Museum’s displays saying just a few trite words about varied traditions and the unity of fundamental faith. The Jewish Museum has a much better record, for example over the association – in many Jewish and non-Jewish minds – between Judaism and the current colonialist regime in Israel. The museum displays take an unaggressive but distinctly positive attitude to Zionism, but explicitly pose the dilemma: “Can Israel as a state still be all things to all Jews, or must it now choose?” (A quite different story, though, is found in the free newspapers the two museums distribute to visitors: ‘The Melbourne Jewish Report’ and ‘The Australian Muslim Times.’ The April 2015 issue of the former is devoted to undeviating support not just of Israel, but of the Netanyahu regime itself. The latter is infinitely more thoughtful and multivocal, its editorial discussing the ‘exponential growth in hatreds and feuds that is fragmenting the Ummah with potentially global effects.’) Helen described the challenge of trying to please all museum’s supporters, users and stakeholders. She admitted that her displays on the different traditions of Judaism, and on gender, had attracted some criticism. But how could she ask the female cantor at her own Progressive synagogue to record for the display, since in some traditions a man must not listen to a female cantor?

Finally, two quite different museums present quite different religious practices. The Chinese Museum in Melbourne has elaborate reconstructions (a mine, a steamer cabin, a goldfield) to illustrate the life of 19th century Chinese gold-diggers. Fascinatingly, these include a little temple of Guan Gong, where visitors are invited to try their hand at casting lots. IMG_7699 IMG_7701               Australia has only (so far) ever had one Catholic saint: Mary MacKillop, a 19th century teacher who founded her own order of nuns, was for a time excommunicated, and was canonised in 2010. Next door to her shrine in North Sydney is a museum of her life. I can’t define quite why I found it so impressive – somehow it manages to make Mary come across as a human being rather than as a plaster saint. Perhaps its strength was precisely that it didn’t try to present religion, but left Mary’s faith implicit – not at all what I thought I wanted. IMG_7857



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