Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

‘The Wealth of Nations: the Health of Society’: 60 Years of the Wolfson Foundation

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In June Neil MacGregor gave a typically masterly lecture at Wolfson College, Oxford, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Wolfson Foundation. Here’s the link.

And here’s what he had to say about the role of religion in museums, and of museum to religion:

“As the world changes, we need to know something about the history of the countries … that are shaping our world. It is one of the great roles of our museums to enable the public to explore their world, to understand it. And not just history in the political sense but history of course in the sense of religion, ever more significant in the world we live in and an ever more valuable resource for our museums across the whole country, to consider different religious traditions, different religious practices and the complexities behind them, and behind the history of the object in the museums. I’ll show you very briefly the wonderful thirteenth century Orissan statue of the God Shiva with his consort Parvati – not, as we might expect, imperial loot, in the traditional sense, quite the reverse: collected by Hindu Stuart in Calcutta in 1815 as part of his attempt to persuade the British that Hinduism was a superior ethical model, and used in the museum in India to present the value of Hindu culture to a non-Indian public. Brought to London later, and now visited by Londoners of Indian extraction, and an object in front of which we frequently find offerings of flowers and fruit. These objects are very significant, I think, in our attempts to understand the communities we live in now, and across the country they are the same. And this depth of the histories is remarkable; if Hindu Stuart is collecting this in order to promote Hinduism as an ethical tradition, this extraordinary object A’a from the South Seas was presented by the people of the Austral islands to the London Missionary Society as a demonstration of their conversion. And again, a strange narrative of the role of religion in different societies, different communities and through history.

I think this is a role that museums have to play more and more. The recent exhibition Hajj at the British Museum was an opportunity – the first opportunity – for non-Muslims to consider this pillar of Islam in which they cannot participate which is central to this idea of Islam as a worldwide community. And how museums can play this role is related to the fact that they are uniquely a civic space equally owned by everybody, to which everybody comes on equal terms, and predicated on the notion of individual enquiry and individual conclusions without political control. It is very hard to see where else in our country at the moment those civic spaces exist for us to address these key questions, the central questions of the kind of society we want to live in, how we want to address it , how we want to change it, and it is I think that idea of the museum across the country as a civic space – particularly in an area where churches and mosques are no longer able to be neutral, in this area and in other areas, the opportunity afforded by the museum space is remarkable and must I think be defended. And it must be defended not just in London but across the whole of the United Kingdom.”

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