Religion, Museums and the Modern World
Elizabeth Carnegie
 

?In contemporary pluralist societies, museums mark the crossroads of many cultural worlds; and appear as ambivalent centres both of cultural refuge and new modes of cultural existence. The museum stands for other worlds, which are assembled? within them.? (Sullivan, 2006: 53)

Introduction

The above comment suggests that museums are places in which cultures come together equally to interpret, promote or reinforce ideas about societies. In terms of religious museums (or museums which also include some religious artefacts) this implies a paradigm shift in the ways religion is interpreted or permitted to be interpreted within the modern world. This paper will first consider relevant literature highlighting changing attitudes to religion and how this potentially impacts on museums. It will then offer arguments as to why there are very few museums of world faith with the St. Mungo Museum, Glasgow, The State Museum of the History of Religion (M.H.R.), St. Petersburg and the Museum of World Religions (M.W.R.), Taiwan being the key sites considered here. It will then look at the origins of these museums, how they present faiths and will focus on the key case study of the Museum of World Religions (M.W.R.), Taiwan. Lastly the potential future of the museum as religious site or places in which to discover religion will be explored.

Religion and society

All societies are structured round belief systems and shared ideas and values. Whilst the relationship of religion to state will vary, societies that are based on religious principles off necessity reflect a world view that is shaped and imposed by the requirements of that faith creating ?powerful, persuasive and long lasting moods and motivations? in individuals (Geertz, 1966: 63). Until the 1920?s it was assumed that religion was influenced by environment but did not shape it but Weber argued the need to look at religion?s influence on society (Kong, 1990). As this relationship between church and state has broken down in many societies and/or the role of religion superseded by political and social values, individuals are often free to select (or de-select) religion or to construct (or deconstruct) a faith that suits their lifestyles. When societies belief systems reflected accepted ?truths? there was no expectation that the individual would seek to challenge such truths.  Religions were usually based on a unique set of long held historical beliefs (Hampson, 2002). In late modernity ideas about objective truths and indeed the role of history have been challenged and the essential uniqueness of faith which made all others idolatrous has given way in many cases to an acceptance that all faiths offer values, aims and ideals which can be adapted to the individuals needs rather than societies will. Despite a growing secularisation worldwide it has been argued that there is a resurgence of fundamentalist faiths and a re-embracing of faith in certain sectors of society either in a direct relationship with the state as in Islam or as a consequence of the removal of state interference in the right to worship as in the U.S.S.R (Kong, 1990:355) An example of this is the Christian Apologetics Research and Evangelism (CARE) Ministries in Winnipeg, Canada, who are considering opening a museum  ?explaining the course of human history - from a creationist perspective? (http://atheism.about.com/b/a/005951.htm) arguing against the scientific acceptance of Darwinism taught in most schools.

Religion, which in some cases may be determined as a sense of spirituality, provides a framework from which to derive comfort from societies ails and personal hardship. It helps individuals to make sense of suffering, ?how to make of physical pain, personal loss, worldly defeat or the helpless contemplation of other?s agony something bearable? (Geertz, 1966: 71).

There is a decline of formal religion as a way of shaping our identity.  In for example Christian Britain this is also evidenced as a decline of the culture that ?formally conferred Christian identity on the British people? (Brown 2001: 193) to the extent that ?Britain is showing the world how religion as we have known it can die? (Brown, 2001:198) A key question is whether the absence of formal (or forced) faith results in a ?gap? in people?s sense of themselves as spiritual beings and whether this gap means that people might be less well emotionally equipped to make sense of the senseless in this world ? violence, poverty and pain.   If so what are the ways that people seek to address this?  For some theorists the answer lies in the need or right of the individual to create and recreate for him/herself a way of being in a fragmented world where we are less likely to hold a fixed viewpoint based on religious beliefs yet still need to have a sense of identity (Brown, 2001). Nor does the decline of formal or fixed faith necessarily mean that people have lost their belief in god or a higher power. In the culture of the individual people are having to self-reflect and ask ?Who am I? Where am I from? What will become of me? ...as postmodernism casts doubt on the value of the meta-narrative??leading to the question of identity: who am I?? (Smith, 2000: 1)

Indeed it is suggested by Smart that the loss of identity is due to changes in society, which is in itself in part due to loss of religion,  may be a reason people seek out a new religion. In late modernity where belief and doubt can co-exist (Derrida 1998), and the commitment to one faith is not a necessary requirement of society, then people may voluntarily return to religion in a ?post-religious? or ?quasi-religious? way and ?outside of formal structures secularity and spirituality will, in future begin to coexist more easily as boundaries become increasingly blurred? (Devereux and Carnegie, 2006:48). Religion in a pluralist society may be viewed as an expression of personal growth.  This religious observance may even lead to people having their own faith with only one member (Smart, 2002).  People may well favour those elements of faith that allow for a stronger sense of individuality and self expression although individuality still needs to be constructed in a social framework (Attfield, 2000) suggesting individuals still feel the need to belong in society.

Another argument might be that as people become more exposed to the faith(s) of the other there is the potential to break down cultural and race barriers leading to a universal religion.  Religion is one of the ways that we define people in society even in a largely post-religious culture. For example people are asked for their religion when they go into hospital; apply for job, and on many other forms in the public arena. In some cases this can lead to racism and dissent. Loy and Watts (1998) argue that the loss of a fixed point of faith which forced a rejection of other religions breaks down racism.  However pluralist societiesare still likely to have social and political divides and a dominant culture (Kong, 1990).  People are open to different experiences learning about and indeed visiting more that just the monotheistic religious sites but also the sites of the ?other? and ?new age? spaces (Shackley, 2001). The ways in which individuals seek to source ideas about faith or faiths may also change as information is available on web sites and in alternative religious spaces or in museums as secular containers of religious knowledge.

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