the way we live now

Geoffrey Kirk has been wandering around museums and has become disturbed by their pernicious influence

I have always had a certain uneasiness about museums. It is a dis-ease which is located at several levels.

No one, for example, can have spent time in one of the world’s great museums – the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan in New York – without deploring the way in which the great collections have become mere tourist attractions. The ‘Tuesday-so-it-must be Florence’ mentality is all too much in evidence as weary processions of the half-interested drag themselves between the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, filling in time before the next scheduled meal.

But is the individual tourist, ear-glued to the audio guide, doing much better?

Museums, it seems to me are doing one of two things: they are providing entertainment or education. And both functions are suspect. There is something vaguely distasteful, for example, in reducing the embalmed remains of a long dead monarch to an object of curiosity for teenagers in trainers. And there is something equally questionable about treating the devotional artefacts of someone else’s religion as though they were merely art works on a par with the latest Damian Hirst.

Museums, one supposes, whether anthropological or not, are intended to introduce us intelligently to the thought-worlds of generations and cultures other than our own. But can they do this adequately when they are themselves so enmeshed in the culture of the present? Religious artefacts are a primary case in point. A roomful of monstrances at the Musée de Cluny will, of themselves, do little or nothing to introduce the visitor to the thought world of late medieval sacramental theology. The manner in which they are presented may well do the opposite, suggesting a world of exotic superstition so alien to ‘modern’ thinking as to be positively repellent.

All this is true even when great care is taken with presentation, when catalogues are stimulating and well-constructed and labelling is careful and well-worded. It is, after all, the very act of putting something into a museum which makes it less relevant than the culture which located it there.

For this reason I have always been angrily opposed to charges for entering cathedrals. The alliance of our great churches with the worst aspects of the heritage industry – so that cathedral ‘bookshops’ exude the comfortable middle class ambiance of the National Trust or a branch of ‘Past Times’ – can only diminish the apparent relevance for the casual visitor of the Faith to which they silently witness. How much better the free-for-all of Notre Dame or Chartres, where, in a way that could hardly be claimed for any English Cathedral, candles burn and prayers are said! Such signs of faith and rumours of angels are a world away from the notices of our own dear church: ‘Cathedral closed during service.’

Museums, I suppose, served a more useful purpose when, paradoxically, hardly anyone visited them and they were either private collections of curiosities or great public institutions of higher scholarship. About cathedrals (and museums) T.S. Eliot was half right and half wrong. It is true that the integrity of place and object cannot be erased (‘the sanctity shall not depart from it’); but it is not true that the ‘armies who trample over it’ and the ‘sightseers [who] come with guide books looking over it’ have no effect. St Denis is no longer a church; it is not even a necropolis; it is a temple to the ability of the present to eradicate the past.

Christopher Hill said to me on one occasion, à propos the proposals of Forward in Faith for an additional province for those opposed to the ordination of women, that it would be tantamount to the creation of a ‘ghetto’. It was, on his part, intemperate and ill-chosen language, and he graciously apologised for it. But what he had really meant to say, but could not, would have been equally offensive: that is it is the certain and declared intention of the liberal majority in the Church of England to put opponents securely into its museum of ethnological curiosities.

We are to be (as one PEV has put it) ‘rather like exotic butterflies in a greenhouse; we shall be a curiosity, lovely enough for terminal care to be offered.’ But our opinions will not be treated as real opinions. Adherence to an all-male priesthood (as the Watch–Affirming Catholicism Statement, and the Guildford-Gloucester report which owes much to it, go to show) is abruptly to be demoted from a doctrine of the Undivided Church to a mere private opinion.

Just as museum curators imprison artefacts in glass cases – reliquaries without bones and monstrances without hosts – so that the object and not its purpose becomes the focus of contemporary attention, so we who hold the ancient Catholic faith of the Church of England are threatened with a similar incarceration; we are to become exhibits whose relevance is decided by others.

Why else, in all the discussions, were our own proposals libellously dismissed and our criticisms of the proposals of others unheard? Why is it the natural and unchallenged assumption that the solution to the ‘problem’ of opponents to the new ministry will be by gracious condescension on the part of those in favour of it?

Quite simply because the curators are determined to be in charge of their museum – without the slightest intention, of course, of conservation. We can only hope, after the extraordinary events of the July Synod, that there will be a change of heart, and that the new legislative group will consult widely (especially with opponents for whom provision is to be made) and treat us not as exhibits but as people.

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