Amanda Hellman, 25, was an art history grad student and an intern at the Williams College Museum of Art when she got an interesting assignment: find art from the museum's permanent collection that says something about the world's religions that could hang in the museum and would be interesting to the academic community. The result was an exhibit called, "The Matter of Theology: A Conversation with the Collection,'' hanging indefinitely at the museum. I stumbled across the theology exhibit while visiting the museum to see a Prendergast show; the theology exhibit, of course, caught my attention as a religion writer.
Hellman has pulled together a variety of ritual objects, works of art and architectural elements and grouped them with a series of questions written on the walls meant to provoke thought -- sort of like those suggested topics for reading groups you find in the back of some popular novels. Among the questions are things like "What makes a place sacred?" and "How do objects serve as intermediaries between the human and the divine?"
I contacted Hellman in Tanzania, where she was spending the summer researching Swahili Coast architecture and museum development, to ask her a bit about the project. Here are some excerpts from our exchange:
Q: How did this exhibit come about?
A: I began 'The Matter of Theology' in summer 2007. I was the intern to WCMA Director Lisa Corrin during the 2006-2007 academic year and she asked me to stay at the museum to reinstall one of the galleries using the museum's permanent collection to address issues regarding different religions of the world. I spent the summer and the following two semester's meeting with the college chaplains, Rick Spalding and Bob Scherr; the custodian of the Chapin Library, Bob Volz; and professors in the Art History and Religion Departments to find out what the professors needed from the museum and what would bring them into the galleries, but also what the college as a whole needed to address to create a community in which a dialogue about religion and larger questions that aren't always addressed in the classroom can be created.
Q: Did you start with questions and start looking for objects, or start with interesting objects, or how did you pull it together?
A: I began with neither questions nor objects. I started by reading everything I could get my hands on. And, not just texts on theory, but I also wanted to think more deeply about how religion is considered in more popular culture (albeit a high pop culture). I read a lot of novels like John Steinbeck's 'The Pearl' and 'To a God Unknown.' In the end, this exhibition was inspired by three sources.The first is Kurt Vonnegut's 'Cat's Cradle.' The second source that heavily influenced this exhibition was 'Satyagraha,' an opera by Philip Glass. The final inspiration was a negative one. I read Sam Harris's 'The End of Faith,' and the response, 'Letter to a Christian Nation.' While I didn't necessarily disagree with everything he had written, I felt affronted by his tone. He was yelling at me throughout the entire diatribe and shut down any possibility for dialogue. I love the dialogue of art history, and have no interest in sitting alone in my office hoarding my ideas and I wanted to create a space in which people could meditate on each object and idea AND talk about how it makes them think differently about something or reinforces something they already believed.
The questions came out slowly and there were many drafts of them. In some cases I found a pairing of objects in storage that I felt was really interesting, such as the Sango Dance Wand and the statue of Saint Barbara. In other cases, the art history department wanted to display an object that they use often to teach with, such as the alabaster John the Evangelist. In other cases, I started with a question I felt was really important, such as how we use text to communicate with the divine (which leads to how does the divine use text to communicate with us) and I searched through the Chapin rare book library to find texts that addressed this question. I also wanted the objects to both be able to stand alone and together. As a curator, my job is to give the topic of conversation and arrange the objects so that they can freely discuss and argue. The viewer walks into the conversation that is already taking place, she/he can participate or just observe. In this exhibition, the questions really are another object.
Q: Did you discover anything that surprised you?
A: This project was an incredible learning experience for me. Although it was the 5th project I had done for WCMA, it was the first time I had to present to the exhibitions committee made up of museum staff, curators, the director and deputy director, the education department and the registrar. I really had to learn how to shape the exhibition to meet the needs of the museum, but also the college and a range of visitors from school children to students to the summer Berkshire tourist, while maintaining the thrust and integrity of my ideas. What surprised me was how sensitive people were about these questions and even the words theology and religion. As someone who studied theology in an academic setting, I was surprised that the word god was off limits; in my experience nothing is taboo because we have to say what we mean in order to effectively argue our point. I wanted this exhibition to be about the phenomenology of religion and art. Indeed, this was quite difficult to convey in a standard presentation. In the end though it was the energy of the art that surprised me the most. I have always been aware of the power art has over me, but when these objects were juxtaposed with questions, I found that the gallery actually vibrated.
Q: What do you want people to take away from this display of objects and questions?
A: I hope people feel the vibrations and the energy that is emitted from these objects. These objects don't represent an entire religion nor can they explain it; rather, they are one artist's version of an answer to a larger question or idea. I want people to consider how they themselves have addressed these questions and objects in other ways and think about how we, as humans, have visually dealt with these bigger questions. It is an opportunity for people to stop and meditate on these objects and questions for just a few moments. The gallery is designed so that you have to walk around the room, you can't skip certain objects and go straight for the one you want to see (a tendency I have as a viewer). The tone of the gallery is different from all the others in the museum and hope the pace of their walk and the way they see the objects change when they walk across the threshold (or just before it if they notice the mezuzah outside the gallery).
(Photos courtesy of Williams College Museum of Art. Image at top shows, from left, an early 20th Century wooden Bundu Helmet mask from Sierra Leone, a 2d or 3d Century gray schist Head of Buddha from Pakistan, a 10th or 11th Century sandstone Head of a Devotee from India, and a parian marble Head of Zeus from Greece that is dated around 50 B.C. Image at middle shows a 20th Century wood and mixed media Standing Power Figure from Congo and a 15th Century Franco-Flemish alabaster St. John the Evangelist. Image at bottom shows a pair of 15th Century oil and gilt panels, depicting Sts. Fabian and Sebastian, from Spain.)