challenging to talk about religion, especially in the wake of September 11th. And simplistic understandings of religious practice can lead us into very
dangerous places," observes Laurel Kendall, Curator of Asian Ethnographic Collections and Co-Curator of the American Museum of Natural History's current
exhibition, "Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion." She continues, "The Museum is very well positioned to present non-Western traditions in a way that people can
understand and appreciate."
|Dr. Laurel Kendall, Curator of Asian Ethnographic Collections, Division of Anthropology,
American Museum of Natural History.|
Thoughtful study across the full range of human cultures has always been central to the Museum's mission. Franz Boas founded the Division of Anthropology
on the premise, controversial at the time, that there is no such thing as a "primitive" or "civilized" culture, and that all are equally worthy of respect.
Recent exhibitions"The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou" and "Body Art: Marks of
Identity"exemplify the Museum's effort to help visitors move beyond stereotypes and to break free of
an older tradition that exoticized people from other cultures as very different, "or trapped in the pages of National Geographic magazine," as Laurel
puts it. "Exhibits are a great way to do this because they're so immediate. They celebrate our multiple diversity while showing that all humans share a
common space and moment in time."
An Idea Leads to an Exhibit
A few years ago, anthropologist and photographer Stephen Huyler came into Laurel's office with a box and an idea. Huyler had previously curated a show
called "Puja" at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C. about objects used in
Hindus' daily ritual offerings. Now he was proposing a show that
shifted the emphasis from the object to the act of devotion itself. The box contained not just the anthropologist's wonderful photographs of Indian
deities, but also some of the shrines in which he envisioned displaying them. Not real, consecrated shrines"because people in various states of impurity
couldn't touch them," Laurel explainsbut small, decorative wooden boxes that could be opened by visitors to reveal the God or Goddess within. "The idea
is that by opening the shrine door, the visitor might appreciate a central experience of Hindu practice, darshan, the focus of Hindu acts of devotion."
Darshan translates literally as "meeting God," the title of the exhibition that opened in September 2001 with Laurel as the in-house curator and Stephen
Huyler as the guest curator.
Engaging the Visitor in Multiple Ways
"Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion" uses spectacular objects, images, sound, and color to convey the many ways in which religion, particularly
Hinduism, enriches the daily lives of devout Hindus. It takes the visitor from the home to the community to the temple to festivals in the surrounding
streets, giving teachers many discussion points. "It encourages the visitor to understand religious practices that are sensatewhat you see and feel, the
gestures your body makes, the scent of incenseall of which are forms of prayer," Laurel explains. This exhibition was a great opportunity to share some
treasures from the Museum's standing collection, only a small percentage of which is on display. The objects on view, such as dippers for water and lamps
for oil, are all the more precious because they are worn with use.
As an anthropologist who studies religion, "albeit in a different corner of AsiaKorea," Laurel is aware that Westerners tend to learn about religion as
abstract doctrine presented in a book or a lecture hall. "They're less comfortable learning about the acts of devotion that many people perform, such as
lighting candles, dressing votive images, and bringing material objects into the place of worship, and that's when prejudice creeps in," she observes.
Prejudice against people whose devotional practices seem utterly alien can be countered by information and by studying the beliefs that underlie such
practices, "but an exhibition such as 'Meeting God,' as a visual experience, has an even greater potential to convey the spiritual and aesthetic qualities
of non-Western religious practices," Laurel comments.
Connecting With the Local South Asian Community
Village trees are very important sites for community worship in India, and a tree in the center of the exhibition helps to create an immersive
experience. "The tree suggests an authentic physical environment so powerfully that one of our security guards asked if she could leave a votive offering
at the base," Laurel recounts. "She was excited that the show was conveying her tradition." The guard is one of the approximately 425,000 Asian Indians
who live in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area, and the curators envisioned the show as a way of bringing this community into the Museum. "We wanted
the community to participate in putting the exhibit together and to reassure them that this is a place where their traditions are being celebrated,
shared, and communicated to a larger community," Laurel says. Laurel and the exhibition team connected with two temples in Queens, New York, who reviewed
new video footage and invited the Museum crew to film one of their festivals, "so when you enter the temple section of our exhibit, you see members of our
New York Hindu community."
|This re-created Banyan tree in the "Meeting God" exhibition depicts a South Indian tree shrine wrapped
with cloths containing offering or prayers from devotees. Throughout India, hundreds of thousands of ancient trees are focal points for the worship of community deities, or gramdevatas.|
Laurel's team also created an ancillary exhibition, "Portraits of Worship", an installation by Magnum photographer Steve McCurry, that captures the local Indian population at
prayer in offices, stores, and homes. In the
captions, New Yorkers explain in their own words what it means to be a Hindu and practice these devotions. "We try to get away from the sense that if you
see it in a museum, it's removed from the present," Laurel explains. "This show is all about people living in the here and now, the vitality of their
Teaching Opportunities for All Ages
who supervises the Museum's instructional staff as Manager of Museum Teaching and Learning, wrote and produced the teachers' guide to accompany the "Meeting God" exhibition.
When studying religions in general, Karen, who has graduate degrees in
anthropology and Asian studies, suggests that a good question to ask students is, "What values do people have that they express in everyday life and
through religious rituals? This helps children understand that cultures have symbolic systems that are expressed in their art and culture," she explains.
Children can then go back and think about their own symbols, like candles, amulets, or flags; what each one communicates about their own culture; and
whether it has another meaning in other places. "You can talk about sacred versus secular, and then how each culture needs to respect the symbols of
|Karen Kane, Manager of Museum Teaching and Learning, Education Department, American Museum of Natural History.|
"That's the main role of the Museum's halls," Karen says, "to teach people about cultures and to deter prejudice by showing that we are all equally creative
and equally human." Such learning calls upon a sense of shared humanity that even very young children can grasp. For teachers or parents with young children
visiting the "Meeting God" exhibition, or any other anthropology exhibit, this means relating the inquiry to important things in young lives: family,
school, and neighborhood. "Anthropologists show the culture as people live it every day: how they make a living, how family members interact. If a child
can understand that other people have needs just like he or she does, you've overcome the first major obstacle: that these people are different from me,"
Karen explains. "Creating that sensitivity is the first step."
For older students, Karen suggests that teachers use stories, such as the Hindu epic The Ramayana, or have students study the Hindu pantheon. Students
could then write an essay on what each character represents (e.g. Rama, duty; Sita, devotion; Hanuman, loyalty), or they could make puppets or masks and
work in teams to perform their own theater piece. More complicated issues like the ethical decisions central to many tales could also be examined. "You
could discuss how these tales teach cultural values to children, and how we're shaped by our cultures," Karen points out. "Whether it's Hindu culture or
another, the important issue for teachers is to use authentic folktales that truly represent the culture, not Americanized versions of ethnic tales."
|Known as the Shining One and Radiant Lady, the Goddess Gauri is another form of Pavarti, the beloved wife of Shiva. Gauri's legends praise her as the model of femininity, loyalty, and matrimonial perfection. This Gauri statue can be viewed in the Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion exhibtiion.|
It's Teaching, Not Preaching|
When exposed to other belief systems in exhibitions like "Meeting God," some parents grow concerned that their kids may be taught to worship objects from
other religions. Karen, however, draws a clear distinction: "We're teaching children to respect other cultures, not to observe their practices." As
Stephen Huyler writes in his book by the same name and is quoted in the exhibition guide, "I can admire and even be in awe of the ways in which the
sacred permeates the lives of the Hindu people, while still maintaining strong attachments to my own home, family, friends, culture, and ideals. Awareness
of one only enriches awareness of the other." Laurel concurs: "We don't proselytize, but we do promote understanding. Ultimately, if we're going to
survive, we're going to have to do so in a world where we accept difference. Cultural exhibits in a museum are one of the most effective ways of showing
different beliefs so that one can appreciate them whether or not one practices them."