The Torah Ark, originally from a Glace Bay, N.S., synagogue, once served 2,000 worshipers.


The Torah Ark, originally from a Glace Bay, N.S., synagogue, once served 2,000 worshipers.

December 12, 2011

GATINEAU, QUEBEC – A new exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization called God(s): A User's Guide manages to explore the diversity of religious belief without falling prey to moral relativism.

It also conveys through the exhibiting of artifacts from a wide range of faiths and multi-media presentations the amazing diversity of religious expression.

The exhibit also manages not to offend any of the great monotheistic faiths, at least according to an imam, a rabbi and an Anglican minister who were invited by The Ottawa Citizen to view the displays and give their comments. All in all, the trio had a favourable impression, the Citizen reported.

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 the exhibit's curator Stephen Inglis.


The exhibit was developed at the Museum of Europe and Tempora SA in Brussels to encourage respect and tolerance among the many religious faiths practised in Europe, said Hélène Bernier, directrice des expositions et des affaires internationales, Musée de la civilisation, Québec.

Stephen Inglis

Stephen Inglis

Though European countries have a long tradition of secularism, globalization and migration patterns brought religious believers from all over the world to the continent, Bernier said.

The exhibit came to Canada to the Musée de la civilization de Quebec last year, but Inglis said the Museum of Civilization has replaced all the artifacts with those that are being used in Canada by a wide variety of religious faiths.

The new exhibit gives the Museum of Civilization an opportunity to showcase many First Nations' examples, such as a replica of a famous shaman's coat, lovingly crafted in fur and hand sewn in his memory.

One statue 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 dominates one wall. Atop the ark are two hand-carved lions commissioned from a Montreal carver. The synagogue in the Cape Breton mining town once served 2,000 Jewish worshipers, but has since closed.


Also on display is a large roadside crucifix from Quebec hand-carved in a primitive style. Inglis said roadside crosses were very popular in Quebec. A Christian symbol, the crosses nevertheless 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. Lining a sitting area for contemplation were Tibetan prayer wheels.

Inglis stressed that religions have often borrowed or appropriated traditions and symbols of other faiths.

A large roadside crucifix from Quebec is hand-carved in a primitive style.

A large roadside crucifix from Quebec is hand-carved in a primitive style.

In a room devoted to places of worship, one wall displays pictures and a first-person testimony of the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are obliged to try to make in their lifetime. In the centre is a model of the church at Ste-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 Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre," he said. The site is also important for First Nations' peoples.

Along one 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. They include souvenirs from Muslim, Sikh, Shinto and other religious sites.

A screen also plays images of places of worship from around the world from myriad religious traditions.

Inglis recently added an image of the Mosque of the Midnight Sun in Inuvik, N.W.T., that was built in Manitoba and shipped 4,000 km by truck to its final destination. "It's the longest journey of a building in history," he said.

One display case differs from the others in that it has a big question mark embossed on the glass. Inside was a picture of Elvis Presley. There was also a picture of revolutionary Che Guevara, and two Chinese medals, one picturing the Buddhist goddess of Mercy Quan Yin, and another of Communist dictator Mao Zedong that could be hung from one's rear view mirror.

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.


Inglis said he found the picture of Elvis 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.

The exhibit whets the appetite for the museum's permanent collection, which includes a Prairie Byzantine Catholic Church that is still consecrated and extensive Canadian First Nations' exhibits.