Here is a belated update on the fantastic ‘Encountering the Sacred in Museums’ Study Day held in the British Museums on Friday 15th March 2013. You can get the whole programme from the Religion in Museums blog
Glastonbury Abbey cross
I was inspired by Karen Armstrong’s point in the first session that we need to learn the ‘science of compassion’. In the Q&A session she noted that instead of worrying what we say to or about religious communities, we really need to think about listening and engaging in a conversation with people of faith. She, and other speakers, also stressed that the sacred doesn’t have to be about religion: everybody has something which is sacred to them, something without which life would be lessened, something which they would die for.
The following session looked at London’s Jewish Museum and various Islamic art collections. Both speakers noted that religion was not the only factor in interpreting these collections: local and regional differences might come into play, and personal and dometic stories could bring these objects to life. The stories they told with specific objects brought them back to a human, domestic level which connected them to the experiences of people of faith or no faith.
The session in the afternoon looked at some British Museum exhibitions in detail. Steph Berns gave a brilliant insight into the sacred interactions which took place between people and objects in the ‘Treasures of Heaven’ exhibition. The stories of people quietly praying next to objects reminded me of my research at Glastonbury Abbey where people are often seen sitting in silent prayer or meditation. The day ended with a look at the Creationism Museum and the Witchcraft Museum, both run by members of communities of faith, albeit with drastically different missions and outlooks.
I’m not doing the day justice here and I’m hoping that the organisers will be able to put up some version of the talks online. There are lots of people working on this topic but they are often in quite disparate disciplines. ‘Encountering the Sacred in Museums’ was such a success because it brought different methodologies, collections and theoretical perspectives together in one place.
Last Thursday and Friday I attended the UMG 2013 conference, held at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Overall the message of the conference was that university museums are doing relatively well, but that strong leadership and ingenuity was the order of the day. Speaking of leadership Dr Nick Merriman (Manchester Museum) stepped down as chair and Kate Arnold-Forster (UMASCS Reading) and Sally MacDonald (UCL Museums) took over as joint chairs of UMG. On a side note, before the conference started I went on a tour of the Oxford University Natural History Museum’s roof and have included a few images in this post.
whale skeleton OUNHM
The conference kicked off with a speech from former Secretary of State for DCMS Baron Chris Smith of Finsbury, a general celebration of university museums. The next day the conference started with a presentation from David Sweeney from HEFCE talking about state funding and the impact of tuition fees. He stressed the need for university museums to actively demonstrate their importance to their home institutions and argue the case for financial support.
Roof of the OUNHM
The nest session was one close to my heart as it dealt with students. Rebecca Reynolds talked about a joint project between Reading and UCL called OBL4HE which created digital resources for students. Gemma Angel talked about a fantastic project at UCL using PhD student to engage visitors with research and collections Researchers in Museums. Dr Giovanna Vitelli got us all jealous and inspired talking about the Ashmolean’s, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Funded, Museum University Engagement Programme.
After that it was onto a research panel chaired by Prof. Nicholas Thomas during which I was taken back to my student days listening to one of my former lecturers Prof. Chris Gosden talk about the way that the university museums at Oxford shaped its research history. Panellists also discussed how historic collections which may seem sidelined from cutting edge research can be made relevant today.
In the afternoon we had a keynote from Hedley Swain (Director Museums and Renaissance ACE) in which he discussed how university museums can contribute to the wider museums sector. Then a ‘provocation’ from Dr. Maurice Davies (Museums Association) and Nick Poole (Director of Collections Trust). Nick pronounced himself too British to provoke, but presented a range of challenging visions of alternative futures for Higher Education, and as a consequence university museums. Maurice talked about Museums 2020 and the challenge and potential of focussing on ‘impact’.
What really struck me about the conference was how the history of university museums in the UK as liminal and often endangered organisations has made everybody raise their game. Nobody was sitting back and relaxing, everybody that I talked to was looking forwards towards the next project. Here ends a whistle-stop tour of the conference, hopefully it gives a flavour of what was discussed and provides links to further resources.
The subject of religion and spirituality in the heritage sector summons up a number of challenging ethical and philosophical issues. There has been much written about sacred objects belonging to ‘non-Western’ people in museums, but it has often been framed in terms of competing ‘world views’ in post-colonial contexts. This usually involves painting ‘The West’ and therefore the heritage sector as inherently scientific and secular. In reality the relationship is much more interesting. This is one aspect of my current research so I decided to blog a little on it.
I thought that I would start blogging on this topic with a couple of recommendations for introductory reading and resources. For my PhD research I used Crispin Paine’s ‘Godly Things: Museums, Objects, Religion’ and would thoroughly recommend it . However, as Crispin Paine notes in his latest book the field has moved on a lot since that book was published. I just picked up this new title ‘Religious Objects’ from the bookshop on Sunday and can’t wait to get reading . For introductory reading I would also recommend Myra Shackley’s ‘Managing Sacred Sites’
So for anybody who wants to find out more about this subject, that’s a good start. I’m booked onto the British Museum event ‘Encountering the Sacred’ in a few weeks time This excellent blog ‘Religion in Museums’, run by the folks responsible for the BM event, is well worth subscribing to.
In conclusion, this post is numbered as #1 as this is a topic that I will come back to again. My next blog on this subject will discuss the British Museum event.