The Museums Association’s newest blogger, Geraldine Kendall, met with Museums Association (MA) members in London this month. During the meeting, the subject of ethics was raised, which prompted a lively discussion on the place of religion in museums.
To get us all thinking [about ethics] 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.