Interpreting Museums


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Session Chair: Kirsten Lloyd        

Emma McAlister (Queen’s University Belfast) 

‘Do Not Touch!’ Historical Museum Objects and Venerating Saints 

Within museum and religious spaces, objects are governed by rules and taboos related to touch. Those who are allowed to touch objects know the correct way to handle fragile objects to ensure their preservation. This paper examines the role of touch concerning an object displayed for most of the year in the Ulster Museum in Belfast. This object is known as ‘The Shrine of St. Patrick’s Hand’ and was made around the 144th – 15th century. Within the museum it is displayed within the context of Early Christian Ireland, surrounded by fragments from archaeological finds. Once a year the shrine, or reliquary, is taken to St. Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street, Belfast, to be reunited with its relic; a piece of bone alleged to be St Patrick’s. During the St. Patrick’s Day Mass, the relic and reliquary are venerated. A priest wearing white gloves set the reliquary on a table decorated with shamrocks, and they bless the congregation with it, due to its now historical status after the Mass parishioners are unable to touch or kiss the relic. In the museum staff handle the reliquary with latex gloves and place it behind glass so that no visitor can touch it. The reliquary’s transformation to museum object in 1986 has resulted in a devotional object becoming a historical object, and therefore the treatment of the object has changed. Museum visitors and the parishioners in the church see the reliquary through the lens of those who currently handle it.

Katarzyna Puzon (Humboldt University of Berlin) 

Beirut’s Museum Alley: Missing Objects and Lost Memories

In her ongoing project 'Under-Writing - Beirut', the Lebanese artist Lamia Joreige approaches Lebanon's capital city as a palimpsest. The media she employs include video, text, still images, and digital technology. The National Museum of Beirut is one of the sites she has chosen and entitled as Chapter One. Mathaf means 'museum' in Arabic and it also stands for the name of the neighbourhood where the National Museum of Beirut is located. Opened in 1942, the museum embodies a troubled history. Following the outbreak of the civil war (1975-1990), the building was taken over by militiamen and deployed as a sniper vantage point, thereby becoming a strategic military location as well as a bunker and a barrack where weapons were stored. Situated on the khutut at-tammas (lines of confrontation), which acted as a demarcation line between East and West Beirut during the armed conflict, Mathaf along with the space surrounding it formed a passage called the 'museum alley' and it is a site associated with kidnappings, death, and menace. By focusing on Joreige's multi-media installation, this paper discusses a possibility of archiving and remembering that space as 'the museum continues to be haunted by lingering traces, tormented by the layers of death it carries within its folds whose ghosts must be summoned and remains must be exhumed', to put it in the artist's words.