(The title is a hypothesis, not an announcement.)
Opening in February and running through September 2012, the exhibit “Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture” will be on display at BYU’s Museum of Art. According to the Tribune report, the exhibit will “feature more than 250 Islamic items from museums and collections in the United States, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The objects range from functional items, such as bowls, to the sacred, including handmade pages from the Quran.” The intent of the traveling exhibit, which will go on to Indianapolis, Newark, and Portland after its stay in Provo, is to touch hearts with understanding; says its director, “Any kind of education and knowledge of each other is good to build bridges.”
Which got me to wondering …
If we were to put together an exhibit of Mormon objects for an exhibit in Kuwait and Qatar and Tunisia – the origins of some of the objects in the Islamic exhibit – what objects would best introduce us to Muslims? What would touch their hearts, to “bring pleasure without preaching,” and best represent the Restored Gospel? And why?
For example, we would probably want to include some representation of the scriptures. An 1830 Book of Mormon, because that is the first? A current maroon leather-bound quadruple combination because it represents us today? Scriptures in a foreign language? Some art object – a painting, calligraphy, a three-dimensional artwork? – rather than the printed word?
What about the temple? Would we send a visual representation of a temple (which?), or some object (what?) used within the temple?
What doctrines would we want to represent – and what objects could portray them through “pleasure without preaching”?
What objects of artistic value would also suggest our history, or our present life, or our hopes for the future?
Would we be self-conscious about Muslim sensitivities, or would we represent ourselves without concern for our audience? (That is, would we represent Deity in some depiction of the First Vision? Would we emphasize, or hesitate to mention, the participation of women in local councils and the leadership role of the Relief Society?)
Would the exhibit we sent to Islamic countries be different from one we might send to western Europe? To America’s Bible Belt?
My proposed entries:
1. Sacrament set — round tray for the bread, and a pitcher and goblet for the water — from the late 19th century. The Sacrament is central to our regular worship, so needs to be represented in such an exhibit. A brief explanation of the objects would be necessary; we’d be offering “pleasure without preaching” by focusing on the objects associated with the Sacrament rather than on a visual depiction of the Last Supper or the Crucifixion; by using a set from the pre-plastic, pre-individual water cup days, the communal element of worship would be present. The set chosen would be of highest workmanship, either individually crafted or at least representing the careful attention of an artist — I’m thinkin’ the set would probably be English. It would probably be silver, although the value should obviously be in its purpose and its beauty rather than in the cost of its materials. It wouldn’t be highly decorated, but the proportions and curves would be perfect. Ideally — maybe fantastically — the maker would be known and he would have some cool story to be told about making and donating this set to his branch, or about the importance of the Sacrament in his conversion or later life.
2. A contemporary artwork depicting some event or story or allegory from the Book of Mormon, in clay or fabric or glass or any other medium, in some traditional folk or ethnic style. Not only would this represent the importance of the Book of Mormon, it would suggest that its teachings are not bound by time or space and are understandable in any culture. The technical skill would need to be of the highest, but the piece would also have to have that element of great art that transcends even technique: it would speak to non-Mormon hearts because of our shared humanity (say, the glory of Christ blessing the children, or the grief of Mormon over the destruction of his people) or would be recognizable across religious tradition (say, Alma the Younger’s joy at being forgiven and coming to know God).
3. An architectural element salvaged from one of our vanished pioneer or early 20th century buildings — a carved stone embellishment, an elaborate window, decorative woodwork, almost anything that was more than it had to be to be functional, something that represented that little bit extra, that giving of one’s best to the House of the Lord, even when that House might serve only a few dozen or a few hundred neighbors in some corner of the Church where that labor and skill could have gone into securing a settlement or earning a living, but instead went for the glory of God.
Let’s play curator. You have access to every object (barring, perhaps the contents of the stone box on Cumorah!) that ever played a role in Mormonism, no matter where it is now located. You can imagine any object that likely existed, even if, as in my examples, you can’t point to a specific example — remembering that this is an art exhibit, not chiefly an exhibit of our history or a display of what’s so great about Mormon life, although those elements might be present secondarily. What would you like to see in such an exhibit, and why?