A Torah Ark originally from a Glace Bay, N.S., synagogue that once served 2,000 worshippers. It’s part of the God(s): A User’s Guide exhibit at Gatineau, Que.’s Canadian Museum of Civilization. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Exhibit explores universal themes of religion

  • December 7, 2011

GATINEAU - A new exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization manages to explore the diversity of religious belief without falling prey to moral relativism.

God(s): A User’s Guide also conveys through artifacts from a wide range of faiths and multi-media presentations the amazing diversity of religious expression.

The exhibit, which opened Dec. 2 and will run until Sept. 3, 2012, invites people to contemplate the ultimate questions about meaning that underlie all religious faiths, such as the existence of God, the creation of the universe and life after death.

“Through this exhibition, we hope to generate ongoing discussion on how to think about the role of religion in the context of a contemporary world, an increasingly globalized world and a culturally diverse Canada,” said curator Stephen Inglis.

The exhibit was first developed at the Museum of Europe and Tempora SA in Brussels, Belgium, to encourage respect and tolerance among the many religious faiths practised in Europe, according to Hélène Bernier of the Musée de la civilisation in Québec City. Though European countries have a long tradition of secularism, globalization and migration patterns are bringing many religious believers to the continent from all over the world, she said. 

The exhibit was at the Musée de la civilization de Quebec last year, but Inglis said the Canadian Museum of Civilization has replaced all the artifacts with those relevant to Canada and the multiple faiths practised here. The new exhibit gives the museum an opportunity to showcase many First Nations’ examples, such as a replica of a famous shaman’s coat, crafted in fur and hand sewn in his memory.

One statute of a Hindu god, a Dancing Shiva, came to the museum from a restaurant in Ottawa’s Byward Market, Inglis said. A Torah Ark that had once housed the sacred scrolls in a Glace Bay, N.S., synagogue dominated one wall. Atop the ark are two hand-carved lions commissioned from a Montreal artist. The synagogue in the Cape Breton mining town once served 2,000 Jewish worshippers, but has since closed.

Also on display is a large roadside crucifix from Quebec that had been hand-carved in a primitive style. Inglis explained that roadside crosses were very popular in Quebec, and while Christian, spoke to concerns in various religions about the spiritual evil lurking at crossroads.

In another case was a display of prayer beads from various faiths, including a set of rosary beads. And lining a seating area for contemplation were Tibetan prayer wheels.

Inglis stressed how religions often borrowed from each other or appropriated into their traditions those of other faiths. In a room devoted to places of worship, one wall was devoted to pictures and a first-person testimony of the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are obligated to try to make in their lifetime. In the centre was a model of the church at St. Anne de Beaupré on loan from the basilica-shrine.

“It exemplifies for Canada pilgrimage because it is a great site of pilgrimage but also religious diversity, because not only Catholics go to St. Anne de Beaupre,” he said, stressing the importance of the site for First Nations’ peoples.

Along another wall were the types of souvenirs one can obtain from pilgrimage sites all over the world, some kitschy, such as a Pope John Paul II bottle opener. 

A screen also played images of places of worship from around the world, from myriad religious traditions. Inglis had recently added an image of the Mosque of the Midnight Sun in Inuvik, N.W.T., that was built in Manitoba and shipped by truck 4,000 km to its final destination. 

“It’s the longest journey of a building in history,” he said.

One display case differed from the others in that it had a big question mark embossed on the glass. Inside was a picture of revolutionary Che Guevara and two Chinese medals, one picturing the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy Quan Yin, the other Communist dictator Mao Zedong. Inglis said this exhibit was designed to raise the question whether cults and modern political movements could take on aspects normally associated with religion, though he stressed the exhibit was not claiming they were religions.

“We’re not suggesting these are religions or that they compare with religions,” he said.

It also included a picture of Elvis Presley that Inglis found in a Vancouver second-hand shop. 

“He is really looking out at his fans in a way that is somehow more than ‘I’m a singer,’ ” he said. “I think it draws on religious charisma.”

One wall features a display of screens showing photographs of how the body is treated in various faiths, from naked sadhus in India, to burka-clad women in Afghanistan, to tattoos, burial ceremonies, cremation and other events in the life of faith, the photographs offer a glimpse of immense diversity in religious expression.

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