Reader David Milne, chair of the Greater Manchester Humanists, got the letter below from the “Engagement Manager” of the University of Manchester’s Museum (I use David’s name and position with permission). It announces the creation of a “multifaith space” at the Manchester (University) Museum. Read it and see if there’s any justification for this project.
The letter (I’ve removed the signer’s name):
As part of Manchester Museum’s transformational development hello future, we are delighted to be creating a multifaith space, which will be opening in autumn 2022.
The Museum is keen to share these ideas for this new space with as many people of as possible, so have created one of the two zoom consultation sessions where you can find out more and share you [sic] views.
These sessions are on
Thursday 22 July 11am-12noon
Or Monday 26 July 6.00-7.00pm
Please do share this invitation with other people in your networks and all at Faith Network for Manchester, as we are keen to work with as many people as possible.
To thank you for your attendance we will be offering a £10 voucher. If you would like to attend either of these sessions please book at the Eventbrite link https://bit.ly/3e8EZA7 or find out more please email email@example.com
The Multifaith/contemplation space will provide a space for prayer and reflection for people of faith and no faith, as part of the new visitor facilities being created as part of the hello future transformation at Manchester Museum. Manchester is one of the UK’s most multi-lingual, hyper diverse cities, and providing a multifaith space is part of our commitment to being a truly civic organisation and commitment to the people of our city.
In multicultural, multi-faith societies there should be respect and even admiration for the varied ways that people of all faiths and none take time out to pause, reflect, pray, meditate. The Multifaith Room is not just about a space but a way of being and reflected in the way we programme, learn together and respect each other. This work builds on our previous experiences and activities, such as our first ever Iftar in 2019, Diwali celebrations in 2019 and contribution to online Diwali programming in 2020, and the integral place of prayer in the launch event for the Jalianwalla Bagh 1919 Punjab under Siege exhibition and programme. And our current and future work, such as the ‘Indigenising Manchester Museum’ programme.
The Multifaith/contemplation room is part of the Museum’s £13.5 million exciting hello future development which includes a new Exhibition
sHall, a South Asia Gallery and Chinese Culture gallery, as well as new visitor facilities, including a new entrance on Oxford Road and our first Changing Places toilet. Through this transformation our ambition is to become the world’s most inclusive, imaginative and caring museum when we reopen in 2022. https://mmhellofuture.wordpress.com/
What it will do
· Prayer/contemplation space for people of faith and no faith
· To be welcoming to all and respectful of each other for people of faith and no faith (how to reflect the need to be respectful of gender neutrality and gender specificity)
· Feel calm, peaceful and inviting
·To be rooted in Manchester Museum, making links with nature that’s expressed in our collections as well as responding to the multilingual cultures of our city of Manchester: Nature provides a common link between people of all faith and none
–– recommendation to focus on plants (as representation of animals not appropriate); Geometric designs (but avoiding any religious iconography)
Manchester Museum is committed to working in partnership and give voice to young people to help shape the Museum and the heritage sector. To help develop the initial project brief we worked with a group of young people from the Our Shared Cultural Heritage Collective (a National Lottery Heritage Fund, Kick the Dust programme, led by the British Council) and young people associated with the Multilingual Manchester Project. These young people are continuing to participate in the consultation process.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate in contacting myself.
I share David’s concern about this. For one thing, people can pray in their homes, in private, or in their mosques, temples, or other religious buildings. Why do we need a prayer space in a museum?
Further, it’s very likely this is not really a “multifaith” space, as Jews, Anglicans, and those of many other faith do not need to take time out while visiting a museum to “pause, reflect, pray, or meditate”. Given the reference to the Museum’s own “Iftar” (the meal that Muslims eat after fasting all day during Ramadan), and the fact that devout Muslims must pray several times a day, I suspect this is not designed for Jews, Anglicans, or Catholics, but Muslims. (Do note, however, that the Museum seems to celebrate Diwali, largely a Hindu holiday.) But what is a Museum doing hosting celebrations for religious holidays?
Third, I object to this sentence:
In multicultural, multi-faith societies there should be respect and even admiration for the varied ways that people of all faiths and none take time out to pause, reflect, pray, meditate.
Given the lack of evidence for any religion, as well as the conflicting claims made by all faiths, I have no respect, much less admiration, for “the varied ways that people of all faiths and none take time out to pause, reflect, pray, or meditate.” (Note the reference to “no faith” which by definition is not a faith and doesn’t require a “meditation room”.)
Finally, the Manchester Museum, owned by Matthew’s university (he has of course no connection with these plans!) is devoted to displays of science: archeology, anthropology, and natural history, apparently concentrating on the latter. To put a religious space (yes, you can also “contemplate” there, which is their way to de-emphasize religion), is an unconscionable mixing of faith and science. Note the statement, “To be rooted in Manchester Museum, making links with nature that’s expressed in our collections as well as responding to the multilingual cultures of our city of Manchester: Nature provides a common link between people of all faith and none.” Well, I’m not sure how Nature provides a common link between people of all faiths except insofar as they’re all part of nature and take advantage of its products.
Now I don’t know how this project came about: it could have been an accommodationist gesture on the part of the Museum, the result of a request by certain religious people, or via some other force. But it’s out of place. I know airports have these things, too, and they always bothered me a bit, but I don’t object to them as much because in the U.S. they do cater to everyone but mainly provide an island of peace in crowded airports (I’ve never been in one). But in a Museum about natural history? And must we have religion sticking its nose in everywhere? (No, there would be no “interfaith spaces” in a secular society.) Do Sweden and Iceland have “meditation rooms” for their atheistic population?
Please give your take below, because there are arguments to be made for allowing such spaces (though should they be in every building?). And let’s have a poll, too. But I do want to hear readers’ opinions.