Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

“Living With Difference “

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I’ve just finished reading the Butler-Sloss report Living With Difference – the ‘Report of The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life.’ It’s made me think about this whole ‘religion in museums’ business.

The report disappointingly (but frankly unsurprisingly) doesn’t mention museums. It does, though, spend a lot of time stressing the need for people of all sorts in British society to become more religiously literate:

3.31 There is a widespread need for greater religion and belief literacy. Relevant educational and professional bodies should draw up syllabuses, courses, programmes and modules.

We constantly bang on about the importance of museums as public fora – neutral places where people of every background and kind can meet, discuss, learn and enjoy. We talk a lot, too, about the wonderful riches of our museums in religious objects, and the opportunity this gives museums to help people to understand religion. It works, too – from the BM’s triumphant Hajj show, to my local museum’s little exhibition on ‘Religion and Spirituality in Petersfield and Beyond’ a couple of years ago.

But I can’t help feeling we – we in the UK anyway – ought to be doing a very great deal more than we are.

What bigger contribution could we be making to ‘greater religion and belief literacy?’ I’m wondering about the possibility of a major project, offering money and help to museums to arrange locally-appropriate exhibitions and events with the broad aim of helping people to understand religion and religions.

I’m sure we can all imagine a well-publicised exhibition, developed by – or at least with – local groups, drawing on the museum’s collections as well as loans, and based on local research. Partnerships with local newspapers and television, apps developed with the local college, the whole thing developed in cooperation with local schools.

To make any real impact would be expensive, but not perhaps much more than other projects funding bodies are willing to take on. Butler-Sloss says:

6.36 Major trusts and corporate responsibility programmes should consider the possibility, within their aims, of supporting projects at both local and national level to develop interreligious understanding and/or which bring faith groups together to work on social projects.

What do you think? Is there anything in this idea? If so, how could we make progress?



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