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Religion in Museum Education.

Instituto Lorenzo de'Medici, Florence

23 February 2018

Florence recently played host, in a beautiful if chilly early Renaissance church, to a one-day conference of museum professionals and art historians. Delegates met to discuss and share experiences of the challenges and opportunities of mediating 'religion' (whatever we understand by that complex word) in museum contexts.

Organiser Maia Wellington Gahtan, who heads the international Forum on Museum Education, began by contextualizing the conference, the fourth of a series intended to 'promote dialogue between museum professionals and religious authority,' and from which several publications have already appeared. She observed that in many ways, the first curators were priests, a comparison that has sometimes been made the other way round too.

Holding thoughts of the fluid spaces between and within the sacred and the secular in mind, the conference got off to a promising start with one of the strongest papers of the day. Caroline Widmer and Anna Hagdorn of the Museum Rietberg in Zurich gave a stimulating account of their work there on the educational project Understanding Religions through Art. Their talk gave insights into their pedagogical innovations and the challenges they face in working with diverse school groups at the museum. The institution's rich holdings are of primarily non-European art--from Buddhist and Hindu contexts, in particular. What impressed me here was the sense that there was an evolving, dynamic learning process that went both ways: that they were gaining insights from the students and other young people from diverse backgrounds who engaged with the arts and different religious traditions, both inside and outside the museum. They were followed by Devorah Block, from New York, who co-founded a consultancy called Circles Squared. She spoke engagingly from her own personal experience as a museum educator in the US and in Italy and made many pertinent observations on the perils and possibilities of such work with respect to religious understanding, or indeed the lack thereof.

Nicholas Badcott from the British Museum highlighted his institution's work with Religious Education in schools. He made the point that the emphasis at the Museum has tended to be on ancient religions such as those of Ancient Egypt. He then considered the case of Islam in the museum context and his own involvement in 2012 in the exhibition 'Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam', for which his enthusiasm was evident. The focus overall was on the details of religious daily life and customs, or, as he put it, on 'how people believe, not on what they believe.'

A rigorous and persuasive scholarly paper by Katharina Schuppel from the Technical University of Dortmund drew on extensive experience in the field of 'shared cultural heritage' in urban German contexts. She highlighted how the Ruhr District in Germany has been enriched by migration and has developed in its transcultural character. Emphasising religious diversity and material religion, she used the Essen Cathedral Treasury and particularly its iconic 'golden Madonna'--dating from around 900 AD--as a case study and 'object biography.' This brought out very effectively the extent to which this sacred object has become an 'entangled' object of belonging. Her pluralistic and ecumenical approach and that of several other speakers' could be summarised by the quotation she made towards the end of her paper --that 'we should all learn to be culturally multi-lingual.' (Stuart Hall).

Mathias Dreyfuss, who heads the Museum Education department of the National Museum for the History of Immigration in Paris, spoke about the work of that institution (aptly housed in what was once the Palais des Colonies) in exhibiting and mediating religious co-existence. Underlining that religion is only one aspect among others relating to identity and that the museum has few religious artefacts, he framed many of his points in terms of the longstanding secularity of France and the separation between Church and State. His paper then discussed the exhibition in 2015 at MUCEM (Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean) in Marseilles, on shared sacred spaces--Lieux saints partages. I was particularly struck by his comment--echoing others that have been articulated in different contexts --that, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2015, people were drawn to this exhibition on religious co-existence in search of a 'therapeutic effect.' This seems to be an instinctive human response and, surely, a hopeful one.

A paper that left a lasting impression on me and on others in the audience was a profoundly engaged talk by the Italian activist Anna Chiara Cimoli. Although loosely structured, with a dizzying variety of examples, she made a compelling case for education as activism, and for 'museums as unsafe places for confrontation.' She spoke about the Shoah memorial at platform 21 in Milan, from which Jews were once deported and where, poignantly, 50 refugees from different countries and religious backgrounds, from Syria, Eritrea and more are now offered shelter every night. She called it a case of a museum running 24 hours, slipping from memorial by day into shelter and place for conversation, community and stories, by night. I have spoken with others who have experienced that place as a site of meaningful encounter. Cimoli is part of a wider movement of people committed to challenging entrenched ideas about museums and boundaries of all kinds and realising the potential of museums as sites of debate, diversity and social justice.

After more discussion over lunch, the afternoon began with a paper by Ilaria Beretta of the Education Department of the Pinacoteca Brera in Milan, a collection substantially made up of works of art taken from suppressed churches and monasteries in the Napoleonic era. She spoke in broad terms about the challenges of opening up the collection to diverse audiences and about creative approaches to museum education with children and parents who have varying degrees of familiarity with Christian tradition. Niccolo Torrini of the international Christian organisation Ars et Fides, ended the day's papers with an informative overview of the work of their initiative which offers explicitly faith-based tours of churches and artworks by mainly young volunteers in Europe. Finally, Rabbi Leigh Lerner gave a thought-provoking closing response to the themes of the symposium. As head of Christian-Jewish dialogue in Montreal, he spoke eloquently of the pleasures and the limitations of his and others' experiences of artworks relating to the New and the Old Testaments in museums and urged us all to think creatively and differently about ways of presenting and interpreting art from a range of perspectives.

An abiding image of the day was the combined effect of multiple photographs of children in rapt fascination before, with or even acting out works of art. But beyond such upbeat and perhaps predictable images of the vital place of museums within education, culture and belief, and of all the many themes that emerged from the day, identity was the deepest and most recurrent one--and the potential for museums as places that can (at worst) entrench or, more creatively, challenge 'single' identities. What does it mean to experience a museum collection as a person of faith, or as someone seeking integration in a new country, or as a parent, a care-giver, a terminally-ill person, as an activist, or as a member of any community not traditionally catered for in museum culture? If museums can be places of authentic encounter, experience and dialogue, then they will be far more vital to our society's development than if they restrict 'education' only to reinforcing dominant cultural narratives or serving narrow curricular requirements.

At times the discussion at this conference could feel a little timid and reticent, particularly with regard to some of the more troubling developments in contemporary politics and sometimes even with regard to actual lived experience of faith. Nevertheless, this modest, thoughtful day left a hopeful sense that museum education is a field in which it is possible to make a difference. Museums at their best can encourage and support religious coexistence, mutual understanding, openness, dialogue and curiosity about other faiths, real lives, art and customs. The museum is a place where a quiet (and occasionally loud) protest of resistance against prejudice, intolerance and bigotry is not only possible, but likely. I gather that another conference in the series is planned in two years' time and it will be very good to see how the on-going discussion about art, faith, society and the museum continues there.

Deborah Lewer is Senior Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Glasgow
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Title Annotation:Conference report
Author:Lewer, Deborah
Publication:Art and Christianity
Date:Jun 22, 2018
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