Tuesday 10 September 2013

When Are Churches Not Like Museums?

A few weeks ago, there was an opinion piece in the New York Times about the rise of participation in art museums.  Titled 'High Culture Goes Hands-On' the piece complained that art museums were trying too hard to flog the 'hands-on' and needed to concentrate on being places that support passive experiences - no participation required.

You don't have to look hard to find people sighing that art galleries need to go back to being more restrained: places for passive contemplation, quiet voices (or as I once read in a wonderfully awful visitors guide to a museum, 'indoor voices').  You don't have to look hard to find references to art museums as secular churches; shrine-like.

Shortly after I read the NYT piece, I attended evening prayer at a cathedral in Dublin.  Like many historic churches, this one helps defray the costs of its upkeep by charging an admission fee for tourists.  Outside of the summer, tourist visits aren't allowed while services are taking place, but for whatever reason, during the summer (when there's no choral evensong and attendance is smaller) the two take place at the same time.

So there I was, prayerbook in hand, hoping for a contemplative experience - and around me, people took photos: of the beautiful architecture, the famous encaustic tiles, the statues and memorials and - me.  Being the reluctant subject of the photography made me think again of the New York Times piece.  Wouldn't it be better if people weren't so preoccupied with a hands-on experience?  Wasn't the urge to record everything part of this mania for activity?  Where were the hushed voices?  Dammit, where was my contemplative experience?

But the thing is - that's nonsense.  Anyone who suggests that art museums and galleries (it's usually these, not so much history or other museums) should be more shrine-like, more like churches, is missing the point.  Churches are all about participation: though prayer may be a quieter activity, it's not passive.  In the same way, my yoga teacher explains that meditation is active - it's just a kind of active passivity, or maybe a passive activity.  And also - churches, temples and other sacred spaces are often full of noise and motion.  Singing, for example, is one of the oldest, most instinctive group activities.

The truth is, contemplation and participation are not poles, either ends of a spectrum.  There's a continuum of participation and, I would argue, contemplation is just one place on that continuum.  My experience in the church, though a bit irritating, reminded me that rather than saying a place should promote one kind of engagement exclusively, we need to remember that people interact with things in different ways.  And that's okay.

To be practical, some kinds of participation don't obviously coexist that well with others.  The act of prayer is somewhat disturbed by people wandering around with flashing cameras or taking iPad videos of the service.  But it seems to me that the cathedral's usual practice makes sense: when services are happening, don't permit - what should I call it? - tourist activity.  But do - do, do, do - invite people (believers, non-believers, believers of another faith or creed) to come in and be part of the service: level and type of participation at own discretion.

When places of worship do this, I think they offer a valuable lesson to art galleries and museums.  Different kinds of participation are possible, valuable - even essential.  Some of them are difficult to programme at the same time, so set aside times when the space is devoted to specific activities.  But, when you do, make sure that you extend the invitation to all your visitors - not just the target audience.  They may or may not not love it, but at least it will help to remind them that the institution is about trying to meet the needs of many different audiences.

One final thing though - in fact, I'd say this qualifies as a hint: whatever about taking photos of a shrine, church, temple, mosque, synagogue or other place of worship, it is almost never appropriate to take pictures of people actually engaged in worship.

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