Encountering the Sacred: Reflections on the British Museum’s Study Day

I spent today at the British Museum’s ‘Encountering the Sacred in Museums’ Study Day.

Museums: Spiritual or Secular?

Johnathan Williams, Director of Collections at the British Museum, started the day by making much of the original collector’s intentions, which were apparently to show the divine as captured in objects and to challenge disbelievers by showing these objects [1].  It was also with reference to this origin that he disputed one participant’s portrayal of the museum as a ‘secular’ institution. I found this both interesting and disturbing: interesting because I think there are few who would associate the British Museum with religious motivations, and disturbing because for me, this sense of identity based on religious origins seriously puts in question the claim to benign objectivity that permeates so much of the museum’s public persona [2].


What is sacred?

Karen Armstrong then spoke about the meaning of ‘the sacred’.  This wasn’t limited to religion: sacred values are non-negotiable values, such as free speech in Western society.  The most interesting part of Armstrong’s talk for me was the concept of the ‘science of compassion’: to really inhabit someone else’s experience and in a scholarly way pursue the question of why they feel this way. Objects now come into play as an important focus: they embody the interconnectedness of all cultures, and thus can serve as a common ground from which mutual understanding can be built.  Museums thus are important as places where these objects can be encountered in a compassionate manner.  I’m not sure I entirely buy into this view of objects; it seems to me that there are plenty of examples also of fiercely contested objects and sites. Perhaps, however, ‘compassionate interpretation’ is what’s needed here.  This may upon further reflection (which I’ve not done yet) turn out to be rather similar to Uzzel and Ballantyne’s ‘hot’ interpretation, but at the moment my feeling is that it goes beyond the basic ‘courage to show emotion and conflict’ approach to truly and respectfully encompass and give voice to conflicting views.


Interactive = sharing spiritual experience?

The next presentation was about the Jewish Museum London.  It described the museum’s aims and redevelopment in 2010, but sadly did not discuss visitors’ reactions to or uses of the exhibits (if any).  I’ve never been to the Jewish Museum, but judging from the talk an effort has been made to give visitors an opportunity to explore the objects on display via interactives, and to experience at least in part Jewish traditions such as the Shabbat. I would have been interested in hearing whether such engagement actually enhances understanding.  Do non-Jews walk away feeling they have shared in some of the spiritual experiences of Judaism?  And what about Jews themselves?  Do they feel they’ve encountered ‘especially sacred’ objects? Does the museum do them justice?


Encountering the sacred: use or consumption?

On this point, the talk by Steph Berns was very interesting.  Berns did qualitative research with visitors to the 2011 exhibition ‘Treasures of Heaven’ at the British Museum, an exhibition mainly exploring Catholicism and Medieval relics.  There were many who felt the museums display obscured the sacred nature of the objects, and inhibited meaningful engagement.  Others made joking comments about what they saw, engaging with the content on a purely intellectual level without any connection to or empathy for the people whose heritage or beliefs this content represented.  But most interestingly to me, Berns also observed visitors praying before relics, and bringing their own talismans in to bless them by touching them to the glass cases.  I’d be interested in reading her full report, to see in detail what impact individual interpretive methods had on all these different responses and uses.


Consultation, and then what actually happens

It would also be interesting to explore in further detail the relationship between the responses that were obtained in the initial consultations for the exhibition, and those that Berns found. Stuart Frost, Head of Interpretation at the British Museum, suggested that the consultations pushed the interpretation away from an overtly religious feel and toward juxtapositions with other religions and modern imagery.  One of these was an exit video that showed both images of Catholic reverence of saints as well as the shrine to Elvis at Graceland. Berns received at least one comment that was negative about this video, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the overwhelming majority of visitors (67%) identified as Christian.  I wonder what the original, more religious approach would have changed.


Interpretation of a different belief

John Troyer of the University of Bath then explored the interpretation at the Creation Museum in Kentucky.  Creationism is of course in itself a very interesting perspective on life, and I fear that the audience’s (and presenter’s?) general dismissiveness of this point of view somewhat hindered a full exploration of what the museum did for and with visitors.  Personally, and this is admittedly an expression of my own arrogance toward creationism, I was really struck by just how slick the interpretation and presentation of the content is.  I’ve often argued with other interpreters that interpretation can really be used for anything – it doesn’t in itself have any intrinsic truth-claim or morality, like so many seem to assume.  Interpretation is communication, and communication can be used for anything.  In this case, it was used with great professionalism and effect to present creationism as at least one possible truth. The museum also didn’t miss a trick in presenting their version of natural history in just the same way as the most modern of natural history museums, using animatronics and lifelike dinosaurs that surely delight any family audience.  Troyer didn’t say much about the visitors – the data, he reported, is either not there or the museum doesn’t want to share it.  His own feeling was that the Creationist audiences that do come, come not on a pilgrimage, but for validation of their views.  This, I think, is an oft-ignored purpose of museums: to validate our point of view and reaffirm our place in the world.


Undoubtedly spiritual

In many ways, one might suspect a similar motivation behind the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, which Fiona Candlin reported on.  The most interesting contrast here was that the interpretation and presentation has a decidedly home-made feel.  But this isn’t to the detriment of the museum, Candlin feels: it is evident that the staff are all practicing witches themselves, and that for them the objects have power.  In fact, Candlin became interested in researching the museum further because so many non-believers were also persuaded of the magical powers of the objects on display – something that wasn’t reported by Berns of the ‘Treasures of Heaven’ exhibition.  That is quite an achievement. Part of it might be the use of language on labels: staff conversationally weave in their own practice and knowledge (‘we’, ‘I’) and address the visitor either in the role of interested party, potential future practitioner or fellow witch, depending on the subject and section in the museum.  Also, staff belief in the potency of the objects naturally requires counter-spells, which are unapologetically placed around the museum without further explanation: the line between display and ‘life’ blurs. There is no question about the spiritual motivation here: this is a museum of the tradition still practiced by the people that run it [3].


So all in all, what have I learnt today about encountering the sacred in a museum?  Well firstly that this is actually possible: I must confess that I doubted museums’ institutional ability to facilitate worship.  What it has also pointed out to me is the need for interpretation to really take a stance: do we approach something in a religious manner, or will we try for secular ‘objectivity’?  Along the same lines, I also feel that interpreters need to think carefully about juxtapositions: who are they to serve?  Are we falling back into a humanist educational trap whereby we want to force-compare and contrast where this really has little benefit for visitors, or might indeed offend? And lastly, I really want to explore what compassionate interpretation could be.


[1] There was a third and forth aspect, which now escape me. Also, the ‘divine’ here is presumably an Anglican-Christian divine, as the Trustees of the museum originally had to be Anglicans, according to Williams.

[2] The little leaflet outlining the museum’s stance in the debate surrounding the Parthenon Marbles is a good case in point: the argument is unsubtly based on the BM collecting ‘humanity’s heritage’ and making it accessible ‘free of charge’ to anyone for personal pleasure and scholarly research.  The tone is decidedly one of selfless science and public service, which is completely at odds with a view of the museum as a religiously motivated institution.  Should we suspect deception?

[3] Apparently, the Museum of Witchcraft was denied accreditation because their labels aren’t ‘anthropological’ and because of their subject matter.  If true, I think this gives cause for serious concern.

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