It takes a minor miracle to get me near anything that even vaguely resembles a church. Well, a miracle or a “you must turn up or you’ll fail” directive from my uni lecturer. Religious orders and I…let’s just say we’re equally apathetic towards each other. Had it not been for the fact I was forced to attend, I would have given the field trip a miss and stayed home to write stories, drink beer and watch old episodes of QI (actually, that sounds like an awesome day. Bugger).
What I’m getting at is that Mercy Heritage Centre is not somewhere I would necessarily have chosen to spend a day. Situated in the original Sisters of Mercy headquarters on the grounds of All Hallows’ private girls school, it’s a bit too niche and imbued with religious significance for me to have visited independently. So it came as quite a surprise to realise halfway through the day that I was actually enjoying myself. Which, as it turns out, is why I’ve been having such a hard time trying to write about it.
When you’re studying museology, you spend a great deal of time discussing museums as sites of learning, as the custodians of knowledge, as places where dangerous ideas can be analysed, blah blah blah. For the most part, we sit in seminars discussing how vital this is and the central role it has in society, and we feel like what we’re doing is important and worthy. Then we nick off down to the museum to see the latest blockbuster superhero touring show which teaches us nothing but looks pretty and sells lots of tickets, and we all nod our heads and say how wonderful it is that people still visit museums for information.
So it’s great to find little treasures like the Mercy Heritage Centre, which is not only extremely well put together, but full of stories that resonate on such a visceral level. Created to tell the history of the Sisters of Mercy in Brisbane, it is both historically important and hugely respectful of the past, but with a freshness you don’t often see in religious institutions. Mercy Heritage Centre is more than just a reminder of what it once was; it’s curated in such a way that I could sense the footsteps of the women who had spent their lives there in devoted service. It breathes with a youthful energy, despite the severe portraits of bishops and Mothers Superior. It’s intimate, and often moving.
This is a side of the church we don’t often see – the lonely journey from eager young postulant to long serving nun, and it makes for an often poignant visit as you see the conditions in which they lived, and the solitude they were forced to endure. I have always struggled with the idea of devotion to religion, and Mercy Heritage doesn’t answer any of those questions. It does however make these women human.
In a room dedicated to the life of the postulants, you are invited to open desks which reveal personal collections from a few of the sisters – mementos of a time I can barely comprehend, and hideously uncomfortable ceremonial gowns worn as they promised their lives to the church.
Perhaps my favourite of the displays was the Trunk Room, a relatively tiny space that opened to reveal suitcases once again full of personal belongs, and the memories of the sisters who travelled through the world working as missionaries. Here there were more than a few glimpses of the fun-loving young women who might have existed had they not entered a life of perpetual self-control and restraint.
And yet as pleasantly surprised as I was by the museum, I couldn’t get past the other side of the Sisters of Mercy I’ve seen recently – the one on display in Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions that I wrote about a few weeks ago. That’s why it’s taken me a fortnight to write about it.
I would encourage anyone to visit Mercy Heritage Centre, but to visit it in such a way that you acknowledge both sides of the story. By all means empathise with the unnatural and emotionless way the sisters were forced to live, but remember how they in turn treated the children in their care (weirdly, some of the same photos appear in each). To see both exhibitions is to be left in no doubt that one way of life almost certainly caused the other.
It’s easy to become disillusioned with the work done in museums. You start to believe that the history and stories we’re here to tell don’t matter as much as the profit forecasts, and that the only dangerous ideas to be found in museums are the ones where we don’t meet budget in a financial year. But somewhere between Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions and Mercy Heritage Centre exists the place where museums absolutely prove their relevance.