Museum of World Religions Opens in Taiwan

Two staff members from the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School traveled to Taipei, Taiwan, to attend the November 9-11, 2002, opening ceremonies of the Museum of World Religions, which has a timely mission of fostering greater understanding, respect, and tolerance for all the world's religions.

Professor Lawrence Sullivan, director of the Center for the Study of World Religions (CWSR), and Alison Edwards, head of the CWSR's Religion and the Arts Initiative, were on hand for the elaborate opening, along with hundreds of religious leaders, members of monastic communities, and laypeople from around the globe. Since 1998, Sullivan has served as a "concept and content developer" for the museum, bringing to the project his expertise in the comparative study of religions as well as insights from art history, museology, and museum education. The museum was designed by Ralph Appelbaum of New York, the designer for such American museums as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the recent expansion of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

"It was quite an amazing event," Sullivan said of the Taipei event. "The president of the Republic of China spoke, as did the vice president and the head of Parliament, and there were many international people. There was a huge street celebration and a formal performance, attended by at least 5,000 people."

He added that it was particularly satisfying for him to be involved in this project, because it was unlike anything he had done before. "Usually, my ideas come out as articles or books," he said, "but here they are expressed in a building which will have thousands of visitors. The premise for the project is a most challenging one for our day: that better knowledge and understanding of peoples' deepest beliefs will lead to greater peace among them."

From the moment he was brought into the project, Sullivan consulted with other experts to help him come up with the best possible proposal. He and Edwards enlisted a team of scholars, curators, and graduate students working at Harvard to develop early content plans for the museum. "Our team here included Harvard graduate students from China, Iran, India, Romania, Canada, Taiwan, England, and the U.S., plus senior advisers from around the world working in diverse academic disciplines," Edwards explained. "For me, the mission of the museum—which is not about representing religions from outside, but from within the traditions or cultures to allow for diversity and dialogue—was first realized through the process of our work together." Sullivan said the museum itself is "still under development," with some parts finished and others still showing "the promise of what can come. I consider the opening the day of the planting of the seed," he said.

Edwards phrased the same idea in this way: "Museums are less material than ephemeral—they may have permanent collections, but even so, exhibits and programs constantly change. Although the museum has opened, its life is just beginning." The 60,000 square feet of exhibition and gallery space utilizes technology to provide interactive encounters for museum-goers and also includes sacred texts, paintings, sculptures, ritual objects, and textiles representing numerous traditions. 

The museum was funded and conceived through the efforts of the Venerable Dharma Master Hsin Tao, spiritual leader of the Ling-Jiou Mountain Wu Sheng Monastery in Taiwan. The master led a 10-year effort to raise $66 million to make the idea a reality. He has commented that he "cannot imagine a more important time for the museum to be opening, since it is "dedicated to confronting those who undermine religions' great traditions and use them as a vehicle for hatred and violence."

While in Taipei, Sullivan also attended the International Conference on the Preservation of Sacred Sites, which was planned to coincide with the opening of Museum of World Religions. For the conference, the museum commissioned an independent study detailing the problem of destruction of religious sites. According to the study, 350 churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues have been destroyed or attacked in the last three years, in 55 countries.

"At the conference on the preservation of sacred sites attended by world religious leaders, the world monument fund, and representatives of UNESCO, the museum's founder, Dharma Master Hsin Tao, said he had created a stage, and invited the religions to think of the stage as theirs to use," Edwards said. "As the museum grows, it will be able to draw on a wealth of relationships to respectfully and collaboratively represent religious ideas and histories in new exhibitions, programs and publications."

The Taipei museum is one of a constellation of projects the Center for the Study of World Religions has developed involving museums and religion. Last year, the center was host to a conference for museum directors—Stewards of the Sacred—that drew on participants' experience with exhibitions involving Buddhist, Christian, Baule, Taoist, Shinto, Yoruba, Maori, and Native American traditions, among others. These meetings led to the newest research project that will bring together Harvard's Peabody Museum, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, the San Diego Museum of Man, and the Woodland Hills Cultural Center in California. A core team will involve staff from the four museums and fellows at the CSWR who will work in residence at the museums to develop an exhibition together. Additional museums and religious organizations will participate in policy discussions and a culminating report.