Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

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‘hiddenness and inscrutability’ at Musée Branly

Marina Warner recently wrote a review of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Silence: a Christian History in the London Review of Books.

She has one paragraph which I feel is well worth our pondering – especially because the Musée Branly has been so criticised for insisting on its laicité.

The word apophatic– ‘against utterance, unutterable, unspoken’ – is used to describe an approach to understanding the divine through negation: specifying everything it is not, so as to leave a space of non-delineated and ineffable force, which only metaphors can struggle to reach. The Temple in Jerusalem enshrined in the Holy of Holies a godhead not to be looked upon or named; Allah has 99 divine epiphets which are recited and inscribed calligraphically over and over again, but he does not show his face. Secrecy and silence communicate the numinous. In the Musée Branly in Paris, a deity from West Africa is represented as a big lump of something dark (mud? best not enquire too closely) behind a curtain inside a small, enclosed space: hiddenness and inscrutability, dramatically staged, very effectively radiate a sense of the sacred. The museum setting removes the need to believe or to reject belief. It would be incongruous if a prayer meeting assembled there: they would break the solemn silence with the wrong kind of noise.