Why The Arts Matter: Behind Closed Doors

Multi-cultural Belfast explored in architectural exhibition at PLACE gallery. Watch an online exhibition

Everyone wants to know what goes on behind closed doors. Where religion is concerned, however, even the most avid of curtain twitchers don’t want to ask. Particularly in Northern Ireland, where people would rather make assumptions based on the closeness of your eyes and how you pronounce the letter H.

Behind Closed Doors is a collaborative project hosted by the PLACE gallery in Belfast and organised by the University of Ulster. The project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council's Religion and Society Research Programme, and carried out by a cross-section of religiously diverse young people.

‘The project aims to examine the role that architecture and spatial experience has on young people’s religious identity in a tensioned society such as Northern Ireland,’ explains Dr Karen McPhillips, who curated the exhibition along with fellow UU academic Dr Jenny Russell.

The religious buildings that the young people explored (all in Belfast) included St Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church, St George’s Anglican Church, the Belfast Synagogue, Belfast Islamic Centre and the Indian Community Centre. They were selected on the grounds of locality and because they were examples of excellence.

Armed with pencils, paper and cameras, the young people recorded their impressions of the various places of worship before, during and after visits. Prior to the project beginning UU drew up a list of significant architectural indicators based on the configuration of a range of religious buildings. These included:

- Spatial dynamics: the hierarchy, components and orientation of space

- Purity: gender differences and distinctions about the roles of adults and children, which also refers to the preparation for prayer

- Rituals and symbols: referring to religious activity and symbology connected to and conducted within religious buildings

- Tolerance: accepting or permitting other religious beliefs or practices.

‘Religious spaces were clearly important to young people in Northern Ireland and ultimately become extensions of their identity,’ McPhillips says. ‘Their relationships appear to lie with the objects and symbols, as opposed to the building itself.’

Some of the children did enter the process with preconceived ideas about other religions and practices. The presumptive (before) drawings created by the young people tend to reveal more of this than the more documentarian photographs – always of the façade of the buildings, decorated as they are with elephants and minarets, crosses and palm trees.

McPhillips remarks on how easy most of the participant's misconceptions were to dispel. ‘They were silly things, the sort of things you wouldn't think about,’ she says. ‘This project helped them put those ideas aside.’

That realisation is reflected in the young people’s responsive (after) drawings, which are colourful blueprints of the religious buildings complete with details about their worship. One girl adds a compass to her drawing of the Islamic Centre and points it to Mecca, while another drawing reminds people to take their shoes off at the Indian Community Centre.

'The Hindu temple was fascinating for the young people involved in the project, due to the many textures and patterns on display inside,' adds McPhillips. 'They all loved the warm environment and bright colours. They spent a lot of time drawing there.’

As far as McPhillips is concerned, Behind Closed Doors has been a success. She says that the young people left the workshops with a wider understanding of religions and more tolerance towards those different from themselves. ‘By visiting the spaces it made them realise that each religion is different and that it is OK to be different. There’s fun to be found in everything.’

Behind Closed Doors runs at PLACE until April 30.