Monday, July 26, 2010

Museum Review: Musee des Religions du Monde

Musée des Religions du Monde
Nicolet, Quebec
Recommendation: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

I found this little gem totally by accident. I was at the entrance to another museum, waiting for my partner and, as I always do when I’m waiting and staring at a rack of brochures, I started reading them. One was for the Musee des Religions du Monde (Museum of World Religions). It was nearby and close, and I thought I would visit when some friends visited Montreal. But, when we found we had time on our hands on the way home, I suggested that we drive by the Musee. My partner was enthusiastic about the idea, so we went. (Not that you cared, but that’s how we ended up seeing it.)

The day was June 24, la Fete Natoinale in Quebec, a day which celebrates Quebec culture and, this year, had a special focus on celebrating the cultures of all Quebeckers, not just the ones who had lived here the longest. As it celebrates the many religions in the world much less Quebec, this place had a message for the day. On the other hand, as June 24 was one of the three days of perfect summer weather this year and most communities had large, outdoor celebrations planned, I wasn’t surprised when we were the only people in the museum.

The museum had three exhibits. One was an exhibition on the Jewish community of Quebec City, which was mounted in Gare Central (central station) of Quebec City last year to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the city, and which I saw there. The original exhibition was curated by community members using private and synagogue collections. I went through this exhibit again and quickly realized this version was bigger than the original. The Musee had added to the exhibit with objects from its own collection, even replicating the sanctuary of a synagogue with items from its collection.

We skipped the second temporary exhibition: a display of artwork by “mentally disordered” people.

What captured our imagination—and impressed us most—was the small gallery featuring the permanent exhibition: religious artifacts from each of the major religions in the world. The collection was small and eclectic: ceremonial pieces from closed Catholic churches in the region; Judaica representative of the Jewish lifecycle; objects used in Hindu and Buddhist practice; and some Christian-themed artwork that had been commissioned.

Pieces were arranged by religion, and each arrangement provided some general descriptions that provided a quick background to the religion and its practices. To someone who is admittedly less informed than he would like to be about some of the religions, the labels provided a great background. I also found the labels accompanying the arrangements of the religions with which I was familiar to be helpful, too—reminding me of the essentials that are often lost in everyday practice.

In addition, all of the pieces were well documented, explaining not only their religious roles, but their artistic significance as well.

Given its location in quasi-rural (and historically Catholic) Quebec, it’s no surprise that the museum started with a collection of Catholic objects and that that collection is its strongest. But the permanent exhibit did not favor that religion. Not only does the museum cover a diverse range of religions, but it also provides non-preferential coverage to any. Each receives equal attention and one leaves the museum feeling that it genuinely seeks to be an institution of promoting learning about different religions and understanding among them.

That this museum is able to do so in a community whose citizens have historically and overwhelmingly belonged to one religion, and in a location that’s somewhat distant to the culturally diverse Montreal, is a testament to this museum’s staff’s and board’s focus on its mission. On a broader scale, this success also inspires hope that the people of different religions can truly learn to coexist.

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