Museums. Expensive, time consuming, and oftentimes boring. What used to be effective tools of spreading culture and knowledge are now competing with the convenience the internet.
Simply put, people no longer need to read books, let alone go to museums to learn about history, science, art, and culture. All of this information, and much more, is now available literally with the touch of a button on our 4G enabled smartphones.
With the full disposal of the internet at our fingertips, museums now need to be creative. They need to offer visitors an experience, rather than just information.
In Taiwan, I found a museum doing just that. Taipei’s Museum of World Religions is an example of a museum offering an experience and a critical message that the world can no longer ignore. A message that requires experiential learning and dialogue. A message that cannot reach its audience through the internet alone. That message is promoting the knowledge and understanding of religions.
A visit to the Museum of World Religions is an experiential journey. Through the use of touchscreens, symbolic architecture and decoration, and interactive exhibits, the visitor is provided with an experience that cannot be offered by the internet, films, or books alone. While this is one aspect of the museum that underscores its relevancy in a quickly globalizing world, the museum’s message is its most important feature.
Understanding the teachings and practices of world religions seems more important now than ever before. Terrorism, religious extremism, war, migration, the explosion of social media, and the accelerated pace of globalization have made it impossible to ignore the influence of religion on human life. Religion is intricately intertwined with politics, conflict, economics and social issues. It has also demonstrated tremendous power to divide people, turn them against each other, and ignite violent conflict. But basic education that explains both the differences and similarities among faith traditions can transform religion from a barrier to a bridge of understanding.
Thus, the mission of the Museum of World Religions is to serve as “a correct form of religious education, to satisfy the public’s spiritual needs, and to provide a leisure place that serves both education and enjoyment.” But religion is a delicate topic. It needs to be treated with care and thoughtfulness, and the Museum of World Religions has done just that. In fact, several characteristics of the museum allow it to achieve its mission to spread knowledge and understanding about a topic as intimate and delicate as religion.
A large part of the museum’s success is due to the neutral stance it takes on potentially dividing issues. Through its exhibits and educational offerings, the museum seeks only to promote the transfer of knowledge of world religions. In no way does the museum promote certain religions over others or compare them in biased ways. Equally important, the museum does not claim that people of faith are morally superior to non-religious people. It is through this type of neutrality that the museum is able to reach a wide audience.
The museum’s neutrality also insulates it against criticism and controversy. Rita Chen, the Deputy Director of International Affairs at the museum, explains that there was very little public criticism of the museum when it opened because of the neutral stance it employs. Visitors understand that the museum only seeks to educate, not proselytize.
Another way the museum promotes religious literacy is through its offering of extensive Life Education curriculum resources, both for students and teachers. The core tenets of the museum's Life Education curriculum emphasize love and common values across religions. The substance of the curriculum is draws from museum exhibitions, reinforcing the knowledge students gain when they visit the museum.
Seeking to educate beyond its own walls, the Museum of World Religions creates free educational resources for students and teachers. The museum has created handbooks for teachers that demonstrate how to integrate exhibit content into their own lesson plans. Junior high students can also receive free workbooks which reinforce the material learned at the museum. Even libraries are eligible to receive free books from the museum.
The Museum of World Religions further promotes religious literacy by drawing attention to the many similarities of the world’s religions, without minimizing their differences. This is especially obvious in the “Hall of Life Journey” exhibit, which draws attention to the distinct, yet similar, roles that religion plays in the different stages of human life.
Religious objects, clothing, and images shed light on religious traditions practiced at birth, in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and death. While the traditions themselves differ, they all address common aspects of the human condition. For instance, the baptismal dress and circumcision knife on display at the beginning of the exhibit represent two distinct traditions. However, the baptism of Catholic infants and circumcision of male Jewish infants both represent the celebration of birth and the forming of a covenant between the infants and God and a commitment by parents to raise their children in their respective spiritual traditions.
The exhibit also shows videos that highlight religious traditions that are relatively constant throughout life as opposed to being dependent on specific life stages. One such example is the prayer room, where video showing people from different religions praying and meditating. Jews pray in Hebrew, Catholics pray with rosary beads, Muslims pray on rugs facing the city Mecca, Hindus and Buddhists chant mantras and meditate. These practices are clearly unique, and much but all are a way of communicating and connecting with the divine.
After walking out of the Hall of Life Journey, I was struck by the commonalities that the major world religions as well as indigenous faiths share. Although we may differ in the religious texts that we study or the way we dress, pray, and worship, I left the museum with the sense that religion helps us cope with the changes we experience throughout our lives and gives us the opportunity to devote our time on Earth to a purpose or cause beyond ourselves.
The Museum of World Religions is a shining example of effective religious education. The unbiased tone behind the exhibits, thoughtful follow up with educational materials, and honest depiction of similarities and differences between faiths allows the museum to tackle a fragile and controversial subject with grace. If this museum were used as a model for religious education throughout the world, we would find ourselves equipped with the necessary knowledge and tools to transform religion from a source of conflict to a source of peace and understanding.