Objects of religious significance are being removed from museum cases across the United States and the United Kingdom. Artefacts are being hidden away - in effect placed in deep-freeze. Public access, research possibilities and academic freedom are being curtailed and closed down. In the US, at the new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, material is removed and segregated if the objects are sacred or have ceremonial status. Some may be seen only by certain privileged individuals in a specific tribe. The public may thus view only some of the material held in what is supposed to be a national collection.
At the British Museum, founded as the home for Enlightenment values, Ethiopian tabots are wrapped in cloth and hidden in the basement. Curators, conservators and even the director of the museum, Neil McGregor, cannot look at the 11 wooden tablets regarded by Ethiopian Christians as representing the original Ark of the Covenant. Only priests are permitted entry into the locked room. Jonathan Williams, international adviser at the British Museum, defends the hiding of the tablets, telling me the move "contributes to increased public accessibility". He explains: "Before, we were not informed properly of their [the tablets'] meaning. Now we are better informed, we know who can, and cannot, see them." This, in his eyes, means that we know much more about them. However, the decision could confuse understanding religious ritual with the practice of it.
Curators will not display part of the collection at the Hancock Museum in Newcastle. Behind closed doors, they have separated parts of this hidden trove into segregated boxes. Only men may look at the set of churinga totems, given to young men of the Arrernte tribe in Australia when they became adults. Any female researchers who make a special request to examine the material will be "actively discouraged".
Increasingly, museums and galleries are considering the sacredness of all collections. Curators for the sacred silver and stained-glass galleries, opening this November at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, consulted with faith groups. On their advice, the collection of silver Christian artefacts was arranged separately from Judaica. Although access will not be restricted, the objects are displayed with "guidance" from believers.
This trend is not the work of a few errant managers. It is operating across the museums sector in both the US and the UK. Professional bodies, unfortunately, endorse the policy as gospel. The American Association of Museums recently published the manual Stewards of the Sacred, which "spells out the benefits" of considering the sacred, because museums have "increasingly an obligation to consider spiritual needs and concerns".
The UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport has quizzed professionals about the future of sacred objects. Glasgow City Council is to launch a consultation and then issue policy guidelines on objects of sacred significance. Soon no showcase or object will be safe from scrutiny. Already, the code of ethics issued by the UK's Museums Association argues that this practice should operate across the board. It commands professionals to "consider restricting access to certain specified items, particularly those of ceremonial or religious importance, where unrestricted access may cause offence or distress to actual or cultural descendants".
These are terrible guidelines for anyone working in museums. The very point of these institutions is to open up other worlds to people, not to lock the ones inside or shut the others out. The writers of this ethical code forget how important it is to be able to overturn old orthodoxies. The pursuit of knowledge without restriction frees us from tradition and the imposition of arbitrary authority. We need robust questioning, not a respectful silence. Museums, as research institutions and places of public engagement with knowledge, are arenas that should encourage profanity, so that we can question and contest all ideas.
The code explicitly recognises that "cultural descendants have a greater connection and ownership of historical artefacts". This is a dangerous trend. The code promotes and privileges the idea that truth and authority are vested in blood and belief.
Writing in the Museums Journal, Ratan Vaswani, ethics adviser to the Museums Association, endorses the restriction of access. He argues that while "restricting access to certain objects certainly sits uncomfortably with our liberal values . . . the effect of such restrictions is unlikely to be sexist or racist in the same way as discrimination in, say, recruitment for a job". It does indeed sit uncomfortably with liberal values. But Vaswani is wrong to argue that this is not unequal treatment. It sends out the insidious message that human beings can understand cultures only if they were born or raised in them.
It would follow that a girl from Ipanema cannot appreciate the artefacts of the Chinese, nor could a Muslim be an expert in Catholic altarpieces from Italy. This is wrong. The very nature of understanding is that it is open to all, despite blood or upbringing. The quest for knowledge can be conducted with tact and sensitivity, but there should be no restrictions on the pursuit of intellectual inquiry.
Vaswani continues by suggesting that "respecting spiritual beliefs is often not only a matter of courtesy but also a practical prerequisite for being able to enter into exploration of cultures where those beliefs are held". Yet to understand any area of human life, we have to ask questions if necessary, and probe in places where we are unwanted. History shows us that sometimes this difficulty is better faced, not denied.
In defence, Jonathan Williams replies that "consulting with community groups can tell us more about the object". And naturally, people who may be close to the original manufacture and use of an artefact could reveal a great deal that is unknown about its creation, use and meaning. However, consultation should take place only simply as another research source, such as a book, original documents or other evidence. This would be based on expertise not identity, or because those questioned are believers whose word cannot be questioned.
Many people who visit museums and galler-ies have private religious beliefs and may be there for devotional purposes. According to Williams: "People leave offerings at different objects in the British Museum." The difference is that such acts are the result of private decisions by individuals, and are not in any way formalised or endorsed by secular institutions.
The great feature of museums and galleries is that people can visit for all sorts of reasons. The increasing trend for treating objects as sacred, and elevating this meaning, prevents people from using the institutions quite so freely. Interestingly, this trend is predominantly pushed from within by museum professionals and academics. The institutions do most removals of artefacts voluntarily. It is curious that some museum professionals seem to be more interested in affirming the private rituals and spiritual beliefs of certain people from selected cultures than in making further investigation. Some would rather act as priests or relationship counsellors than as curators.
As to why this is the case, two authors of the Stewards of the Sacred manual suggest that it is driven by a general attempt to bring people together in a fragmented world. As the contributors Dominique Ponnau and Pierre Fortin explain: "Be-cause notions of sacredness are found across many cultures, we believe this is a point through which cultures can converge." Using museums to connect people and find meaning in an uncertain society is a difficult, if not impossible task with which to burden the institutions - especially when such restrictions entail shutting down academic freedom and introducing racial thinking.
We cannot find meaning and commun-ity through censorship and restriction, or when people are perceived as determined by some nebulous notion of different and separate cultures.
Museum directors must not act as priests, nor must they treat the public as their flock. Idolatry has no place in museum policy. Those with faith already have churches and other places to venerate religious icons. If museums continue to be confused with places of worship, we will all suffer, as the pursuit of truth is sacrificed on the altar of veneration.
Tiffany Jenkins is researching human remains in museum collections at the University of Kent, Canterbury