Icon? Art and Belief in Norfolk

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: World Art Studies and Museology

Abstract

Icon? Art and Belief in Norfolk' is a collaborative project, a partnership between the School of World Art Studies and Museology at the University of East Anglia and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. The main collaborator at Norwich Castle is Andrew Moore, Senior Curator and Keeper of Art; the key researchers at UEA are Sandy (Thomas Alexander) Heslop and Margit Thofner.

The project will explore one core question: what is the relationship between religious artefacts and the locality where such objects are made and used? It is a well-established fact that religious works of art can have a power or agency of their own. Such works have inspired and continue to draw responses such as awe, devotion or aggression. But where does this power come from? We think it likely that religious artefacts take a substantial part of their agency from the locality in which they are made or used.

To explore this idea, to provide it with a meaningful factual basis, the project is focused on one case-study: the making and use of objects for spiritual purposes in Norfolk, an area with a history of religious diversity going back at least 2000 years. Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings all came to Norfolk with their own belief systems and their own religious objects. In the later Roman period, Christians settled in this region and - after a period of conflict - Christianity became dominant. This, however, did not prevent other religions from flourishing. For example, in the Middle Ages there were thriving Jewish communities in Thetford, King's Lynn and Norwich. From the fourteenth century onwards and across the early modern period, religious diversity took the form of a bewildering number of different branches of Christianity, including Lollards, Catholics, Calvinists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Puritans and Quakers. In Norfolk the putatively uniform religion of Christianity was only ever an illusion. Then, over the past two centuries or so, a new pattern of diversity has emerged. To number but a few of the faith-groups now found in this region: Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Neo-Pagans, Baha'i and Sikhs as well as older and more recently formed communities of Jews and Christians. This makes Norfolk a particularly appropriate case-study for our project.

It must be noted that 'Norfolk' was and still is a fluid category. The definition we shall operate with is partly geographical and partly religious: our project is focused on the medieval diocese of Norwich. It covered most of present-day East Anglia since it was bounded in the south by the river Stour, in the west by the Great Ouse and in the north and east by the North Sea. The term 'spiritual' is similarly unstable. For the purposes of our project it denotes behaviour found both within organised religion and within looser and perhaps more personal belief-systems.

The project and its most visible outcome / an exhibition in Norwich Castle Museum / will explore the works of art and the artefacts that have both embodied and perpetuated spirituality in Norfolk. In particular, we shall focus on moments of religious conflict, moments when questions of faith became pretexts for iconoclasm and other forms of object-based violence. But we shall also consider works of art which have served or still serve as bridges between different faith communities in this locality. Here we shall pay particular attention to the roles that local institutions such as universities, museums and multi-faith groups may play. Finally, the exhibition will examine the roles that art plays within religion and spirituality in Norfolk today. Our sense of what is local has changed dramatically in recent years: a sculpture with religious contents exhibited in Norwich in October 2007 has caused consternation as far afield as Thailand. Can this shifting sense of locality, driven by technological change, help us understand the sheer power of religious works of art?

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title Art of Faith', 3500 years of Art and Belief in Norfolk. 
Description Our exhibition, entitled 'The Art of Faith: 3500 Years of Art and Belief in Norfolk' opened at Norwich Castle Museum on 2 October 2010. It included 151 objects, many of which were lent by private individuals and major national institutions such as the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. A selection of installation shots has been attached to this report. The final number of visitors was just over 26,000. Visitor feedback was almost universally positive. Typical comments include 'The inclusivity and breadth is awe-inspiring', 'The spiritual quality of the whole exhibition. It was an experience', 'The diverse nature of the art displayed. The way the exhibition highlights the need for tolerance and mutual respect'. We also received a number of favourable reviews, including one in 'The Times' and in the Danish newspaper 'Kristeligt Dagblad'. Clearly, it is possible to curate exhibitions which do not de-contextualise or otherwise deaden religious and spiritual works of art. The exhibition was accompanied by a small, non-academic catalogue with six essays, edited by Andrew Moore and Margit Thofner and published by Philip Wilson Publishers. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2010 
Impact The most important impact of our project must surely lie in the 26,000 visitors who came to see our exhibition, many of whom voiced their appreciation of and support for what we were trying to do. It is notoriously difficult to measure whether exhibitions can truly change people's minds. However, the evaluative material that we gathered during and after the exhibition shows that a substantial amount of our visitors found it very thought-provoking and this was also articulated in the various reviews that we received. Thus we can safely claim that, for at least the majority of our visitors, we managed to generate an environment which stimulated both contemplation of and reflection on the powers of religious and spiritual works of art - and, by extension, on the dangers of religious violence. From this, we hope, arose a deeper appreciation of the importance of mutual respect, engagement and tolerance between those of different faiths and those of none. For example, on a specially guided tour of the exhibition undertaken by the Principal Investigator for the members of our multi-faith consultancy panel, the Rabbi of the Reformed Jewish Synagogue in Norwich expressed her pain on contemplating works of art evincing the anti-semitism of the deep and more recent past yet also her appreciation of our direct engagement with this difficult issue. Later, she voiced her delight in seeing Jewish ritual objects on display in the case dedicated to personal devotional objects currently in use (for details of this, see the set of installation shots attached to this report). A very different but equally interesting response was voiced in our visitors' book, in a comment which simply stated: 'Thumbs up from two friendly atheists'. 
 
Title Art of Faith, Self, Spirit, Surroundings'. 
Description A supplementary exhibition of contemporary art works by Norfolk artists held in the 'School Court' within the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia between 27 November and 17 December 2010. This was entitled: 'The Art of Faith: Self, Spirit and Surroundings' and was organised and curated by Dr Elizabeth Mellings with help from the MA students on our Museum Studies programme. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2010 
Impact One rather unexpected consequence of our project is that it showed that the relationship between locality, faith and spirituality matters greatly to many of the artists practising in Norfolk at present. Evidently, the secular turn taken by art for most of the twentieth-century is no longer current, at least not in our area. Moreover, many of these artists are self-avowedly local even if several of them also come with international profiles. Thus they live out the interesting tension between the global and the local that very much informs current debates about contemporary art. This, in part, was why Dr Mellings decided to curate an additional exhibition. Although we included over twenty large contemporary works of art in our main exhibition, there were many equally pertinent, interesting and important pieces which we simply did not have space for. 
 
Title Something Understood. 
Description This film was commissioned from Chris Newby and made with the collaboration of our multi-faith consultancy group. It was displayed in the final section of our exhibition; the viewer numbers are therefore those that we have for the exhibition as a whole. The copyright of the film remains vested in its author. However, a copy is available at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery for public consultation 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2010 
Impact Chris Newby, the film-maker, was very appreciative of our efforts to convene the multi-faith consultancy group. 
URL http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0627704/
 
Description 'Icon? Art and Belief in Norfolk' was a collaborative project between the School of World Art Studies and Museology at the University of East Anglia and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

The project was designed around one core question: what is the relationship between religious or spiritual artefacts and the locality where such objects are made and used? It is a well-established fact that religious artworks can have a power or agency of their own. Such works have inspired and continue to draw responses like awe, devotion or aggression. But where does this power come from? Our theory was that religious or spiritual artefacts take a substantial part of their agency from the locality in which they are made or used. To provide a solid, factual basis for exploring this theory, the project was focused on one case-study: the making and use of objects for spiritual purposes in Norfolk, an area with a history of religious diversity going back at least 2000 years.

Of course 'Norfolk' was and still is a fluid category. Our project was therefore focused on most of East Anglia, as encompassed by the medieval diocese of Norwich, bounded in the south by the river Stour, in the west by the Great Ouse and in the north and east by the North Sea. The term 'spiritual' is similarly unstable. For our purposes it denoted behaviour found both within organised religion and within looser and perhaps more personal belief-systems. This allowed us to focus on artworks and objects used in personal devotions as well as those serving more formal, religious purposes such as rituals.

The main research outcome was an exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery held in the autumn of 2010 and entitled: 'The Art of Faith: 3500 Years of Art and Faith in Norfolk.' The purpose of this exhibition was twofold.

First, it helped us to explore the range of artefacts made and used for devotional purposes in Norfolk across history. We displayed over one hundred and fifty objects, including a bronze-age ceremonial weapon, a medieval anti-semitic cartoon, a seventeenth-century recusant chasuble, an anti-witchcraft charm in the form of a mummified cat, a miniature portrait of Elizabeth Fry, a central-European Torah scroll brought to Norfolk during the Second World War, a Baha'i meditative painting, a range of personal devotional objects supplied by members of our multi-faith consultancy group, and a specially commissioned film on the relationship between prayer and the landscape as experienced by several faith communities active in Norfolk today. We deliberately included objects linked to conflict, to moments when faith served as a pretext for iconoclasm and other forms of violence. But we also displayed artefacts which have served or still serve as bridges between different faith communities in Norfolk. This was to show that spiritual works of art can indeed be highly charged, either negatively or positively.

Second, the exhibition provided a laboratory for testing our theory. Scholars who study museums often claim that the display of spiritual artefacts in gallery spaces has a de-contextualising or deadening effect. Yet we found the opposite. Through careful research, selection and juxtaposition, our wide-ranging corpus of works actually generated its own spiritual charges. Moreover, the display of local devotional artefacts in the evocative locality of Norwich Castle Museum actually enhanced their appeal. This is evident from our visitor numbers, of just over 26,000 people, and from the nearly universally positive responses that our exhibition drew.

Even so, our conclusion is not straightforward. Spiritual artefacts and works of art do indeed take some of their powers from the locality in which they are made or used. But this is not a given. It depends very much on the specific circumstances and contexts pertaining to such artefacts.
Exploitation Route The academic anthology offers research useful both to local historians and to those with a broader interest in diachronic historical work. The collaborative effort between a university and a museum has now become quite commonplace but, when the project was still active, it was a new development. Our successful delivery of the project was therefore a kind of pioneer in working across heritage institutions.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/norfolk/hi/people_and_places/religion_and_ethics/newsid_9052000/9052528.stm
 
Description Our findings were chiefly used in our exhibition, which took place at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery in the autumn of 2010. It was entitled: 'The Art of Faith: 3500 Years of Art and Faith in Norfolk.' The purpose of this exhibition was twofold. First, it helped us to explore the range of artefacts made and used for devotional purposes in Norfolk across history. We displayed over one hundred and fifty objects, including a bronze-age ceremonial weapon, a medieval anti-semitic cartoon, a seventeenth-century recusant chasuble, an anti-witchcraft charm in the form of a mummified cat, a miniature portrait of Elizabeth Fry, a central-European Torah scroll brought to Norfolk during the Second World War, a Baha'i meditative painting, a range of personal devotional objects supplied by members of our multi-faith consultancy group, and a specially commissioned film on the relationship between prayer and the landscape as experienced by several faith communities active in Norfolk today. We deliberately included objects linked to conflict, to moments when faith served as a pretext for iconoclasm and other forms of violence. But we also displayed artefacts which have served or still serve as bridges between different faith communities in Norfolk. This was to show that spiritual works of art can indeed be highly charged, either negatively or positively. Second, the exhibition provided a laboratory for testing our theory. Scholars who study museums often claim that the display of spiritual artefacts in gallery spaces has a de-contextualising or deadening effect. Yet we found the opposite. Through careful research, selection and juxtaposition, our wide-ranging corpus of works actually generated its own spiritual charges. Moreover, the display of local devotional artefacts in the evocative locality of Norwich Castle Museum actually enhanced their appeal. This is evident from our visitor numbers, of just over 26,000 people, and from the nearly universally positive responses that our exhibition drew.
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Art of Faith learning website
Amount £6,000 (GBP)
Organisation Westhill Endowment 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2010 
End 12/2010
 
Description Art of Faith learning website
Amount £10,000 (GBP)
Organisation Sir Halley Stewart Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2010 
End 12/2010
 
Description Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery 
Organisation Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We performed the lion's share of the research for our exhibition, ran the academic conference, edited the ensuing volume and helped out with the outreach programme
Collaborator Contribution Norwich Castle Museum supplied the venue for the exhibition, complete with state of the art climate and alarm systems and with exhibition custodians. We also had the benefit of their marketing and outreach teams.
Impact The exhibition, the exhibition guide and the academic volume. The collaboration involved historians, art historians, archaeologists and interested amateurs
Start Year 2007
 
Description Public events programme 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The complete events programme ranged from café conversations to public lectures and dedicated school events. A copy of the programme is available on request.

Very thoughtful questions from audiences both at café conversations and formal lectures
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010
 
Description School resource website to support the exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The result was an interactive website for secondary school children, to support RE teaching. It was located at http://www.artoffaith-learning.co.uk/ but has now been withdrawn. It was only ever meant to be temporary.

Substantial uptake from local schools.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010