Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Controversial Canterbury exhibition

Michael Wright, Nicole Mathewson and Cecile Meier, ‘Offensive t-shirt in Canterbury Museum exhibition’, stuff.co.nz, 13 February 2015


Source: Canterbury Museum.

A banned t-shirt depicting a graphic image of a nun and explicit abuse of Jesus is well-guarded at the Canterbury Museum.

The T-Shirts Unfolding exhibition sparked outrage ahead of its opening, but there were no signs of protest at the opening today.

The t-shirt was in a separate corner, with a large warning sign and museum staff checking people’s ID before they were allowed to see it.

Entitled Vestal Masturbation, the shirt is the design of English heavy metal band Cradle of Filth.

On the front it shows an image of a masturbating nun while on the reverse it has the phrase “Jesus is a c***”.

Christchurch’s Anglican Bishop Victoria Matthews questioned why the t-shirt needed to be included in the exhibition at all.

Cartoons and ridicule of the prophet Mohammed had led to violence and outrage in Islamic countries, and the public needed to consider whether what happened here could “have repercussions across the globe”.

“At a time when we are seeking ways to reconcile extreme views in the international community, this exhibit could feed the accusation that the West is morally bankrupt,” she said.

“The inclusion of this t-shirt as art in an exhibition is a conversation for the wider community with issues of mutual respect, common decency and what the public wants and does not want.”

Catholic blogger Brendan Malone said in a blog post that a museum should bring a community together, but Canterbury Museum’s decision to hold this exhibition was “irresponsible” and would “result in unnecessary harm” to the public.

“Canterbury Museum has chosen to make itself a place that fosters intolerance and division – and what’s worse; as a ratepayer I am being forced to fund this intolerant and divisive behaviour.”

He questioned whether the museum would display a t-shirt that “attacked and ridiculed Islam” in the same way.

Malone also launched an online petition on Change.org asking for Canterbury Museum to “remove the hateful t-shirt” and “stop dividing the community”.

The petition said the museum should act with more community responsibility and respect for its local funders by removing the t-shirt from its exhibition.

Catholic Bishop Barry Jones also criticised the controversial t-shirt. “Anglican and Roman Catholic nuns enjoy wide respect and the misogynistic message on the t-shirt is appalling,” he said.

Family First planned to lay a complaint with police about the “highly offensive” display.

“The museum should show some respect to the many families who will be horrified and offended by this and remove the offensive material,” national director Bob McCoskrie said.

“Sinking to these low levels is an insult to many families.”

Canterbury Museum director Anthony Wright said the shirt was a small part of a large exhibition examining the garment’s place in popular culture.

“When you do a show like this you deal with the edges of our culture and society. There are inevitably going to be some items and themes that are going to be offensive to some.

“It’s there because it is a valid part of an overall story about a whole cultural movement. We want to tell the whole story without unduly censoring things.”

Museum management had a “serious discussion” before deciding to include the t-shirt in the exhibition, Wright said.

New Zealand’s chief censor ruled the t-shirt objectionable in 2008 but granted the museum an exemption to display it provided it was kept in a separate space from other exhibits and was age restricted.

In his decision, chief censor Bill Hastings said the t-shirt was injurious to the public because it featured socially unacceptable profanity that associated its aggressive and misogynistic meaning with Jesus Christ.

“I can’t remember seeing a stronger t-shirt than this one.”

Wright said the museum was displaying the t-shirt with an R18 warning of offensive content and language and providing information about the garment’s sometimes provocative role in contemporary art.

“There’s no way anyone could get to the t-shirt unless they really wanted to,” he said. “It can’t be stumbled upon.”

There are several hundred t-shirts in the exhibition. The event is free to enter and runs until May 10.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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