Handling one’s inner opera director: a religious collections challenge

An article by Rosalind Parker

I am currently developing a chapter in a forthcoming book on the exhibition of religion in museum and gallery contexts, specifically on the visibility of the curatorial hand and its relationships to both theological and artistic ethics. In it I ask whether, if a narrative is inescapably imposed on any religious object placed in an exhibition then what responsibility does the curator have to its previous or proper theological context?

Over the course of a decade or so working in the area of religion and public space I became increasingly drawn into work as a practitioner where I severally adopted the role of art curator with regards religion.

I found this transition with comparative ease, which I put down to my concurrent work in the field of opera as a director. Perhaps the term ease is misleading, as the change in creative contexts to this handling of what is essentially the matrix of subject, audience and space, was at once familiar and entirely strange.

The transfer in artistic medium meant any curatorial project I took on was naturally through the lens of a director; stage-craft, narrative and contract-with-audience all key ingredients at the forefront of my mind.

There are many similarities, indeed one might almost say a sliding scale between, the performance space and the exhibition space, after all both work with the same basic language. I am a firm advocate of the four dimensionality of the scenography of the exhibition room and the importance of acknowledging its sonic properties.

However, this was not simply a transition of director to curator, this was from director to curator of religion. I wouldn’t now be dealing in fiction, however I still, as curator, felt the gate-keeper and guide to an audience who would be in receipt of an exhibition narrative, irrespective of the role I played. My job was to shape that narrative.

The theologian in me wasn’t simply content with striving for a balance of the didactic and experiential, but became curious about how much creative agency the curator has with regards religious objects in their care and where this agency should be curbed by heeding voices of duty or conscience to religious theologies.

Creating an experiential relationship to religion may be reframed as a religious experience. This religious experience is unavoidable, for to make a space less experiential is impossible, it can only be differently so. It falls to the curator, then, to be the creative director of that experience. When dealing in opera my creative duty is clear, it is not to panda to the tastes of the audience – although ideally they have a nice time – it is a responsibility to the text; there is a musical score in which all thematic and narrative lines can be traced if one looks carefully enough. Any single ingredient, such as a character or action, at all times both implies the specific and the whole.

Feeling in possession of the same creative tools when making the transfer from director to curator, the startling difference I felt was that in the latter context my script was unclear. The theological text which a religious object belongs to may of course be clear. Equally clear, however is that this is a former theological context from which the instance-implying-narrative has been displaced, dislocated, and temporarily housed, as it were, ‘without’ its script. If we look to object relations for a clue, a eucharistic vessel relies on the narrative of participating in the eucharist for its identity to be more than a vessel. If it’s extracted from this context how much does it still imply the eucharist? It was as though Prince Calaf strikes the ritual cymbal of Turandot’s downfall without the conditions of ritual: in opera, a cymbal no longer ritualised by its narrative context becomes simply a very loud cymbal. Can we say that a Chalice is simply rendered a cup in the same way?

I then began to explore ideas around curatorial duty, or responsibility towards theology when confronted with the task of an inevitably creative approach to the inescapably new narrative to be imposed on religious objects. I found myself looking more and more in terms of the aspect of what I have come to call the visibility of the curatorial hand. If a narrative must be subjective, for of course it must, then what is liberated if its curatorial author is felt as a prominent voice in the exhibition space?

If I am to impose my own story on a religious object, then I’d like to at least dispense with any implication that I am misleading the audience into receiving a narrative which is authentic to a previous theological context. Is it more theologically proper to heighten the secularity of their temporary aesthetic in the exhibition: the more stark the contrast the more evident the dialogic. This would mean that perversely, the less ‘religiously’ religious objects are framed – by which I do not mean treated – the more theologically acceptable it becomes to enjoy them in museums.

Put frankly, does a celebration of the visibility of the curatorial hand liberate new possibilities for the role of religious objects in museum spaces?

Comments and contributions to any of the ideas above, gladly received; I can be found at rosalindparker00@gmail.com and I suspect I shall be addressing the above subject for quite some time.

Rosalind Parker

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