Museum of World Religions

After a delicious lunch of famous Taiwan noodle soup, thousand-year-old egg, and stomach strips, we had a good time at the Museum of World Religions in Yonghe, Taipei, Taiwan. There was a class of elementary age kids visiting from Nantou who had never seen foreigners before (according to one of their teachers). I wondered why we were being followed and stared at as if we were one of the museum’s exhibits! We had a fun time talking with them, taking pictures, and of course, letting them measure how tall their were compared to me, how big their feet were and the obligatory “sure, rub my arm hair all you want! Yeah wow. Look at that!” It was fun.

The Museum
The MWR is all about atmosphere. The elevator on the way up dims the lights, plays a moody welcome message, and opens to a display about purification beside a transparent waterfall. This leads to the entrance hallway called “Pilgrim’s Way,” where esoteric questions (in several languages) are played over a background of ambient music and the walls light up with the same questions in Mandarin and English beside life-size pictures of people praying. The hall ends at a heat-sensitive wall on which you can leave your hand prints. All this is probably the least-impressive part of the museum experience, but it sets the mood.

The museum is designed to make a strong impression and send a message, rather than primarily convey large amounts of cognitive information (though there is a lot of info to be had). It’s an engaging multi-sensory experience; it’s easy to get “lost” among the displays. In addition to the main hall profiling ten major world belief systems and traditional Taiwanese religion, there is: a small movie theatre showing “Creations,” an artsy story-telling of various creation myths; a globe-style theatre that attempts to help visitors “grasp the spirit” of the Avatamsaka sutra (“one is all; all is one”) through an audio-visual experience; a tatami-style “meditation gallery” with a giant video screen on each wall and banks of meditation instructions for various religions; a “Hall of Life’s Journey” show casing religious paraphernalia associated with birth, coming of age, marriage, old age, death, and afterlife; detailed replicas of famous religious architecture with movable internal cameras; and more. In the main hall, each world religion has a wall with text, a floor to ceiling video screen, a large, tall display case set in wall with audio selections corresponding to various numbered and encased religious paraphernalia, and a touch-screen computer database.

The museum was founded by a Buddhist master for the purpose of promoting peace, tolerance, inter-religious dialogue, and for providing a “department store of religions” where people can learn about and choose a religion. On the whole it’s really well done. It didn’t seem to be overly pushy with the Buddhism, though there is a pervasive message of Buddhist inclusivism, or maybe pluralism. Judging from the Christianity displays, they’ve done a lot of homework, but I don’t think someone would have a balanced or basic understanding of Christianity if all they knew was what the MWR told them. It seems to go out of its way to emphasize the similarities and inconsequential differences of each religion at the expense of fundamental, mutually incompatible differences. For example, the Christian meditation instructions in the Meditation Gallery say, “As the aspirant progresses in the ascent to God, he/she experiences a breakthrough en route to a dazzling darkness beyond all desires and concepts” and uses the quote “My being is God” while referring to kenosis. In an Eastern, Buddhist/Daoist context, this will likely be understood to mean things that are actually more Buddhist than Christian.

I should also mention that St. Nicholas gets much better treatment at the museum than he does on their English website.

See our photos here.

2 thoughts on “Museum of World Religions”

  1. I think at the MWR you can get a special package deal: buy the liberal humanism or Buddhist inclusivism models and they throw in miniatures of everything else. But with the liberal humanism model there’s a lot of maintenance… it’s boring, and it breaks down every time you encounter large populations of Muslim immigrants.

    Jessica and I unintentionally went through the museum in the wrong order, so the force of their message didn’t come through as clear. The Hall of World Religions, in which each religion has a separate display, is supposed to be one of the last stops. You’re supposed to get there after: you walk down the hallway depicting people of different faiths all walking the same direction, watch the creations movie in which different creation stories are not identified according to their religion, go down through the Hall of Life’s Journey that mixes religions’ artifacts from different traditions together for each stage of life, then up into the “one is all; all is one audio-visual globe experience, and then you finally get to see displays of particular identified religions. I think by that time they’ve made their point, eh?, and coloured the glasses through which you are supposed to view these particular religious traditions. It also helps that these displays are a lite on historical and theological particulars.

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