Security Concern Leads to Self-Censorship at the Victoria and Albert Museum

In the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo, it is understandable that cartoonists, journalists, and even the general public would fear possible violent repercussion for expressing themselves, especially when it comes to talking about aspects of the Muslim religion in countries where the Muslim religion is a fundamental part of the community. Caution is understandable for people whose day to day lives are being impacted, but it comes across as bizarre when a scholarly institution not only removes its own portrait of the prophet Muhammad, but then lies about its ownership when confronted.

This is just what happened recently at the the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Out of a fear of potential public outrage and violent backlash, the museum opted to quietly and discretely have a devotional image of the prophet Mohammad removed from public view and then denounced their ownership when approached about the removal. When a United States expert, though, later showed a link to the image in the museum’s online collection, museum spokeswoman, Olivia Colling, simply responded that it was “an honest error.”

Citing potential security concerns the museum opted to self-censor their collection claiming:

As the museum is a high-profile public building already on a severe security alert, our security team made the decision that it was best to remove the image from our online database (it remains within the collection).

Here’s the puzzling part of this story, though. Several museums around the world have portraits of the prophet Mohammad as part of their collections, and they are often put on display in those museums for both academic purposes and the public’s cultural enlightenment. Furthermore, unlike the satirical pieces that readers have become accustomed to seeing the past few weeks as a result of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the pieces in these museums are often devotional or portraits of the prophet as represented by members of the Muslim community itself. The piece that the Victoria and Albert museum possesses shows an Iranian artist’s view of the prophet in a very serene painterly style — there is no hint of satire or potential malice in the picture at all.

As Islamic art specialist, Mirjam Shatanawi, commented when the Tropenmuseum in Amterdam decided in 2013 to display their own portrait of Muhammad, also done by an Iranian artist:

We knew it might be controversial, but decided to take the risk because the story is important to tell… These images are a real eye-opener, a powerful example of Islam being different and more diverse than many imagine.

If Muslims feel offended by images made by other Muslims out of reverence for the prophet, I’m not sure if the museum should decide not to show them. It seems like choosing one interpretation of Islam over the other. These images are not made to disrespect but – on the contrary – to honour the prophet.

A museum is often seen as an entity of objectivity and a place where people can be exposed to things that will enrich their view of the world and cultural perspectives. From their reaction, it appears that the Victoria and Albert Museum potentially holds a lesser view of their collection and feels the need to succumb to self-censorship in order to prevent the possibility of offense. Security is understandable, and something to respected. A case like this, though, only shows that the fear of repercussion that an unfortunate byproduct — and self-censorious — of the world in which we live in today.

In light of this event, other curators and academics have pointed out how displaying an image of the prophet in a museum setting is not only more commonplace than one might think, but is also something that is important to providing the public with a new perspective that would not be afforded anywhere else. Hiding these images likely only exacerbates the larger issue of fear of a particular religious group, and censorship gives credence to that fear and does nothing to help the public overcome its potential biases.

Ingvild Flaskerud, an expert of Shia devotional culture at the University of Oslo, commented:

As a historian of religion, I think it is very important to put such images on display. They provide valuable information about the richness of Muslim devotional life… By not displaying the images, we give privilege to certain understandings of Islam and marginalise others. This is not simply a scholastic issue; it is also a democratic matter.

For a museum whose own website touts “the world’s greatest museum of art and design,” this act of self-censorship only further demonstrates the long way that we have to go to overcome both a public fear of the Muslim community in the Western world and a fear of a community that has fully free expression. Perhaps this event, though, will encourage educational institutions to see themselves not as simply curators, but as initiators of freedom of expression and public conversation.

Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work in 2015 by visiting the Rewards Zonemaking a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!

Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!