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

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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".

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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. …