Museum Objects Celebrating Religious Freedom


You know those “Coexist” bumper stickers? They are objects of our time, but the idea is an old (and woefully under-realized) one.

Yesterday I visited the Sackler Gallery, so that I could gawk like a fangirl at the Cyrus Cylinder, an object from the British Museum touring the US this year. The Babylonian clay cylinder is inscribed with the actions of Cyrus after becoming king of Persia from 539-530 BCE:

“I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements….I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy….I have enabled all the lands to live in peace.”

Or, as the touring exhibition’s website explains:

“He sets all the peoples free, lets them go back to their homes and homelands.

“Most amazingly, he lets them recover their statues and gods – all the things that were confiscated as symbols of victory – and go back to their lives and religions, worshiping their gods in their own way and in their own temples. This is what sets the Cyrus Cylinder apart from a number of other ancient objects. The message is one of tolerance, peace, and multi-culturalism. It portrays a very modern way of ruling with pluralism and tolerance at its core. No wonder many have called the Cyrus Cylinder ‘the first bill of human rights.’”

Sackler Gallery

Sackler Gallery

At the US Capitol, my favorite statue in the Statuary Hall collection  is Roger Williams from Rhode Island. About two millennia after Cyrus wrote his cylinder, in 1636, Williams founded Providence Plantations in Rhode Island, where he led in accordance with his ideal of “soul liberty,” advocating for freedom of religion and separation of church and state. A Protestant church-founder himself, he would have nothing to do with forcing people to attend his church or otherwise follow religious tenets. He also promoted the abolition of slavery and treating Native Americans fairly and peacefully, long before these ideas caught up with the rest of the country.

Roger Williams in the US Capitol

Roger Williams in the US Capitol

Sadly, the statue of Williams is tucked away in a corridor that few people see. As for the Cyrus Cylinder, its tour of the US will allow many more people to see it, but I have not been able to find any educational activities associated with it. I would love to see kids put on plays about Cyrus or make their own cylinders stating their own ideas for building peace. These objects are so historically important as well as relevant in our present world of religious wars, persecution of individuals for religious beliefs, and campaigns for laws based on religions that only some practice.

Do you have a favorite museum object promoting religious equality and tolerance?

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March’s blog theme is Museums and Fighting Inequality.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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