I have been mulling over this topic for several years, wondering about the best way to articulate my ideas and where to disseminate them. It just so happens, this blog has given me an excuse to put my thoughts into a (hopefully) coherent format.
Since moving to the UK three years ago, I have found myself as a tourist to numerous religious heritage sites. As a master’s student studying in Durham, I fell in love with Durham Cathedral and it still remains one of my favourite destinations to visit when I am in town. I have also been to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London twice and have made similar ascents in churches in Europe. I thoroughly enjoyed a tour of Ely Cathedral, visiting York Minster, and Salisbury Cathedral.
Perhaps I should note for the record that I am a Humanist in belief so my reasons for visiting these sites is divorced from their religious aspects. Something else has been drawing me to these sites and that is the subject for this blog post.
A thought occurred to me after one of my many walks along the River Wear while I was a student in Durham. The brownish stone wall of Durham Cathedral loomed up on my right as I headed up the bank toward Palace Green. I began to think about the enormous task of constructing the cathedral, the number of people involved in the project, the energy, time, hope, and faith of human beings all focused on one goal. I thought of the remarkable circumstance that the fruits of their labour was rising up before me, nearly one thousand years later. Rather than being reminded of a deity, the sight of the cathedral was bringing to mind human beings.
Since this epiphany, I have looked on my visits to other religious sites in a similar way. I find I tend not to think about religious iconography nor ideology except as it relates to human endeavors and the process and experience of being human. When in these spaces, I try to imagine and empathise with those people who came before me, who worked to construct, or came to worship, or buried loved ones in the churchyards nearby. While not sharing their religious beliefs, I can find so much humanity in what they left behind.
I do not think my experiences are unique. When people visit any sort of heritage site, they bring with them their personal experiences and belief systems. The museum or heritage visit is filtered through their personal lenses and what they take away from that visit is a reflection of who they are. For me as a Humanist, visiting religious heritage sites helps me to view these sites as Humanist spaces; spaces which illustrate the power of human belief and what can be achieved when many human beings are focused on a singular goal which might stretch over several generations.
One aspect of my visiting these sites which does at times give me pause are entrance fees. While not all religious heritage sites have entrance fees (Salisbury Cathedral asks for a donation, for example), many sites such as Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s do charge admissions unless you attend a service (though you cannot access many of the tourist areas if you go this route). In many cases the fees, like at other heritage sites, go towards maintaining and conserving the site. However, it is not made explicitly clear whether entry fees are used in other ways, for example to maintain worship services or for religious outreach. A quick browse of some of the websites of fee charging religious heritage sites reveals this shortcoming in information. It could be that the information can be found elsewhere on the website or it could be that it is provided at the physical site. Regardless, it is something which should be made much more explicit than it is.
Despite the lack of clarity around entrance fees, it is to the credit of many of these sites, that the interpretation tends to be religiously neutral especially considering many are still operating as sites of worship. Text panels and leaflets do not tend to proselytize but focus on architectural notes, names, and dates. I wonder though, is there room for criticality in the interpretation of religious heritage sites? Are there ways to discuss the positives and negatives of organised religion in the interpretation of sites which still operate as houses of worship? How could it be done in a reflexive and thoughtful way? Is it necessary or appropriate in these places? I do not claim to know any definitive answers, but it would be an interesting and challenging opportunity to work with these ideas in settings such as these.
Whenever I visit religious heritage sites, I ponder over these thoughts. It is difficult to turn off the reflexive practitioner portion of my brain even when visiting for recreation. Religious sites, like all heritage sites, have the potential to be relevant to people from differing backgrounds and beliefs. Interpreting these sites can certainly be challenging especially when they are still operating as houses of worship. I suppose what really interests me are the experiences of visitors from not only non-religious backgrounds, but also visitors from different religious and cultural backgrounds as well. Religious sites are inextricably tied to historical, political, and cultural events. How we interpret the many layers of experience at these places is a wonderfully complex puzzle for heritage professionals.