The Censoring of Our Museums: Certain Artefacts in the British Museum Are Deemed to Have Such Religious Significance That the Director Himself Cannot Examine Them, and Australian Male Totems Are Barred from Female Eyes at the Hancock Museum in Newcastle. Faith Sensitivity Is Endangering Free Access to Our Collections, Argues Tiffany Jenkins

By Jenkins, Tiffany | New Statesman (1996), July 11, 2005 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Censoring of Our Museums: Certain Artefacts in the British Museum Are Deemed to Have Such Religious Significance That the Director Himself Cannot Examine Them, and Australian Male Totems Are Barred from Female Eyes at the Hancock Museum in Newcastle. Faith Sensitivity Is Endangering Free Access to Our Collections, Argues Tiffany Jenkins


Jenkins, Tiffany, New Statesman (1996)


Objects of religious significance are being removed from museum cases across the United States and the United Kingdom. Artefacts are being hidden away--in effect placed in deep-freeze. Public access, research possibilities and academic freedom are being curtailed and closed down. In the US, at the new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, material is removed and segregated if the objects are sacred or have ceremonial status. Some may be seen only by certain privileged individuals in a specific tribe. The public may thus view only some of the material held in what is supposed to be a national collection.

At the British Museum, founded as the home for Enlightenment values, Ethiopian tabots are wrapped in cloth and hidden in the basement. Curators, conservators and even the director of the museum, Neil McGregor, cannot look at the 11 wooden tablets regarded by Ethiopian Christians as representing the original Ark of the Covenant. Only priests are permitted entry into the locked room. Jonathan Williams, international adviser at the British Museum, defends the hiding of the tablets, telling me the move "contributes to increased public accessibility". He explains: "Before, we were not informed properly of their [the tablets'] meaning. Now we are better informed, we know who can, and cannot, see them." This, in his eyes, means that we know much more about them. However, the decision could confuse understanding religious ritual with the practice of it.

Curators will not display part of the collection at the Hancock Museum in Newcastle. Behind closed doors, they have separated parts of this hidden trove into segregated boxes. Only men may look at the set of churinga totems, given to young men of the Arrernte tribe in Australia when they became adults. Any female researchers who make a special request to examine the material will be "actively discouraged".

Increasingly, museums and galleries are considering the sacredness of all collections. Curators for the sacred silver and stained-glass galleries, opening this November at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, consulted with faith groups. On their advice, the collection of silver Christian artefacts was arranged separately from Judaica. Although access will not be restricted, the objects are displayed with "guidance" from believers.

This trend is not the work of a few errant managers. It is operating across the museums sector in both the US and the UK. Professional bodies, unfortunately, endorse the policy as gospel. The American Association of Museums recently published the manual Stewards of the Sacred, which "spells out the benefits" of considering the sacred, because museums have "increasingly an obligation to consider spiritual needs and concerns".

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport has quizzed professionals about the future of sacred objects. Glasgow City Council is to launch a consultation and then issue policy guidelines on objects of sacred significance. Soon no showcase or object will be safe from scrutiny. Already, the code of ethics issued by the UK's Museums Association argues that this practice should operate across the board. It commands professionals to "consider restricting access to certain specified items, particularly those of ceremonial or religious importance, where unrestricted access may cause offence or distress to actual or cultural descendants".

These are terrible guidelines for anyone working in museums. The very point of these institutions is to open up other worlds to people, not to lock the ones inside or shut the others out. The writers of this ethical code forget how important it is to be able to overturn old orthodoxies. The pursuit of knowledge without restriction frees us from tradition and the imposition of arbitrary authority. We need robust questioning, not a respectful silence. Museums, as research institutions and places of public engagement with knowledge, are arenas that should encourage profanity, so that we can question and contest all ideas.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Censoring of Our Museums: Certain Artefacts in the British Museum Are Deemed to Have Such Religious Significance That the Director Himself Cannot Examine Them, and Australian Male Totems Are Barred from Female Eyes at the Hancock Museum in Newcastle. Faith Sensitivity Is Endangering Free Access to Our Collections, Argues Tiffany Jenkins
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?