Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

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State of the art: A Q&A with the Smithsonian’s new religion curator By S. Brent Plate

A post from the Religion News Service

thumbRNS-MANSEAU-QANDA101716-771x578.jpgPeter Manseau, who holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Georgetown University and whose many books include the history “One Nation, Under Gods” and the novel “Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter,” was recently hired as the first Lilly Endowment curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Photo courtesy of Peter Manseau

(RNS) The place of religion in museums has a long, troubled, and often strange history.

In the 1930s, the Soviet Union established a series of “anti-religion” museums. Several decades later, objects from the museums were transformed for use in the Museum of the History of Religion, now in St. Petersburg.

And in response to ethnic and religious clashes across Scotland, the government there helped create the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, which is dedicated to “understanding and respect between people of different faiths and of none.”

Whether devoted to art, archaeology, or history, museum spaces can provide a neutral, public space to see the role of religion in the variety of human experiences.

With a major new initiative recently announced at the Smithsonian Institution, Americans will now be able to more clearly see the role of religion in the history of the United States. The Lilly Endowment (which also gives funding to RNS) has provided a $5 million grant to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History dedicated to presenting religion as a vital element in American life.

The grant also made it possible for the Smithsonian to hire a permanent curator of religion. Peter Manseau, who holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Georgetown University and whose many books include the history “One Nation, Under Gods” and the novel “Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter,” was recently hired as the first Lilly Endowment curator of American religious history at the NMAH.

RNS talked with Manseau about this new position, and about the past, present, and future of religion in museums. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Your position is new, and as far as I can tell, the first appointed curator explicitly dealing with religious history in the Smithsonian Institution. What is the significance of this new post? And, why now?

Religion actually has a long history at the Smithsonian. As early as the 1890s, there was a division of religion that was part of the National Museum. Those early efforts were mostly outward looking, concerned mainly with objects brought from afar to be displayed in Washington.

My position is the first at the Smithsonian dedicated specifically to American religious history. Viewing the role I now have historically, I would say the creation of a curatorship of religion at the NMAH is part of a larger effort over the last 15 years on the part of national institutions to engage with religion as a subject of vital significance to the nation and the world. It grows out of awareness that one cannot tell the story of America without including the story of religion in America.

What are your goals in filling this position? What would you like to see happen, both within the Smithsonian, and with regard the general public?

My immediate goal is to complete the exhibition we have opening next summer, “Religion in Early America.” Beyond that, my work will involve helping the museum consider the ways religious ideas, beliefs, and practices are part of many stories, including those that might not seem to have anything to do with religion.

We are also launching a music and theater series. These events will often present surprising moments of intersection that have always been part of our multireligious heritage. The first is a performance on Nov. 5 of Colonial church music and Wampanoag sacred singing, presenting in a moving way what two cultures meeting for the first time might have sounded like.

In December, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra will stage a performance demonstrating how jazz was influenced by a number of traditions, from Duke Ellington’s Christianity, to (South African pianist and composer) Abdullah Ibrahim’s Islam, to the cosmic philosophy of Sun Ra (an American experimental composer).

I will also be actively collecting religion-related objects — both from the past and today. The Smithsonian takes the long view, and so one of the more challenging aspects of a curator’s role is guessing what kinds of things being used and created today will be useful for future generations making sense of early 21st-century American life.

In all this, my hope is to tell stories about religion that feel inclusive and welcoming, framing the nation’s diverse religious history as a part of everyone’s American experience.

Religion can be seen in a number of museum settings. What can museums do for the public understanding of religion in ways that other institutions cannot?

Museums strike me as a rare public space where we enter with the expectation of learning. And very often we expect to learn through direct contact. That expectation of learning through standing in the presence of something from another time and place makes museums powerful places.

Can you give us a sneak peak into any upcoming exhibitions at the NMAH that focus on religion, in one form or other?

“Religion in Early America” will open in the summer of 2017. It tells the story of what religious freedom, diversity, and growth meant in the Colonial period until the 1840s. It includes objects from the Smithsonian collection (including the so-called Jefferson Bible, a cut-and-paste edition of the New Testament Thomas Jefferson assembled with a pen knife and glue; George Washington’s christening robe; and a shawl worn by the Quaker abolitionist and early women’s rights advocate Lucretia Mott), as well as many loaned objects. Along with objects from the various Protestant denominations, visitors will find objects drawn from Catholicism, Judaism, Native American religions, African traditions, Judaism, and Islam.

After that initial exhibition, which runs for one year, many ideas are being considered as a follow-up. Whatever it ends up being, it will include stories that I hope will appeal even to those who do not think they are interested in American religious history. I hope a takeaway from all the exhibits and programs related to the museum’s religion initiative will be that, no matter what you believe or don’t believe, this is your history too.

(S. Brent Plate is a writer, editor, public speaker and part-time professor at Hamilton College. Follow on Twitter: @splate1)

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‘Bringing religion and pilgrimage to life in museum contexts’ – Talk at the University of Oslo

This month Dr Marion Bowman, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at The Open University, will give a talk at the University of Oslo’s Centre for Museum Studies.

From the Centre’s website:

From artefact to experience? Bringing religion and pilgrimage to life in museum contexts

What can we do with modern technology, scholarship, imagination and informed empathy to bring museums and exhibits with religious objects and subjects back to life? 

Museums are sometimes regarded as places where religious objects go to die. They lose their context; they are no longer considered ‘performative’, able to act; they become lifeless. Marion Bowman will use a selection of case studies to look at past and current practice and future opportunities.

Time and place: Oct. 12, 2016 12:15 PM – 01:30 PM, P. A. Munch’s house, 425

For more information, go to the University of Oslo website.


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African-American faith goes on display in DC

Donation by Dr. Charles Blockson of Harriet Tubman items

Harriet Tubman’s personal book of hymns, dated 1876 (©2016 NMAAHC)

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington DC, opens  on 24 September and will include over 2,500 artifacts related to faith and religious history. That’s 10 per cent of its collection.

According to Adelle M. Banks, writing for The Gazette:

Tucked in the back corner of [the underground history galleries] is a space decorated as a brush arbor – the secret hideaway where slaves could worship freely.

…Another case displays a kneeling altar from First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles and a Catholic choir chair from New Orleans. A third features artifacts about African-American Jews.

…Musical artifacts in the museum’s exhibits range from Tubman’s “Gospel Hymns No. 2” to a Grammy and a lime- green jacket from the Dixie Hummingbirds, a group that Ellis described as “the standard-bearers of gospel singing” for more than seven decades.

Sports figures highlighted include two-time Olympian Gabby Douglas, whose 2012 book, “Grace, Gold & Glory: My Leap of Faith,” has been in the American History gallery, and boxing great Muhammad Ali.

…Five chaplains are featured in the military history gallery, along with the Bibles of service members, one from a soldier in the segregated military of the 1930s and another from a female West Point graduate who was killed in Iraq in 2006.

In the segregation gallery are the crucifix and chalice of Louis Beasley, a World War II chaplain who received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart after saving the lives of two soldiers.

…The museum will [also] feature African tribal and folk religious objects such as a voodoo doll and a bottle tree, which is believed to capture evil spirits.

Read the full article here.

You can also explore the collection online at the NMAAHC’s website


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The Museum of Mankind: a recollection and consideration

Saturday 30 April 2016, 10:00 – 17.30

Stevenson Lecture Theatre, Clore Education Centre Registration at 09.30 with the first presentation at 10.00 Tickets £10, concessions £5 (coffee breaks provided) or +44 (0)20 7323 8181

So many of the papers for this conference concern ‘religion in museums’ questions that blog-readers may like to take note of it.


The Museum of Mankind, between 1970 and 1997 a branch of the British Museum located in Mayfair, is remembered fondly for innovative exhibitions and lively programmes. Curated by anthropologists and archaeologists, it was also important for an emphasis on objects from Africa, Oceania, the Americas and Asia in their original contexts, for engagement with indigenous communities, and for innovations in museum anthropology. This one-day conference draws together the recollections of former staff in a reflection on the Museum of Mankind’s contribution to the world.

Details of the conference are at: Museum of Mankind Conference

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What Matters? – A conversation exploring challenges and opportunities in preserving British Muslim heritage.

EPSON scanner image

EPSON scanner image

Where and When: 26th March 2016, Richmix Venue 2, 1.30 – 5.00pm

Go to:!what-matters/c144e
In our second Annual event the Everyday Muslim team will bring together a host of speakers to represent a variety of voices to discuss and evaluate the changing ways in which Muslim and Islamic heritage is represented and archived, incorporating topics such as identity, representation and access. As well as, examining a host of challenges faced by diverse organisations and individuals in the heritage sector. By the end of the session we hope to have a first stage collaborative document of recommendations for organisations and individuals planning cross sector Muslim heritage projects.


1.30 pm
Arrival and Informal Networking. Opportunity to speak to funders
(Tea, coffee and refreshments will be available throughout the day.)

2.00 pm
Introduction by Everyday Muslim

Presentations and Discussions

2:10 – 2:30 pm
Who Are British Muslims?
Muneera Williams | Poetic Pilgrimage, Spoken Word Artist

2:30 – 2:50 pm
Why Do We Need To Look Again?
Faridha Karim | Oral Historian

2:50 – 3:10 pm
Why Do We Need Partners?
Carien Kremer | Curator at William Morris Gallery and Vestry House Museum

3:10 – 3:40 pm
Break – Informal Networking and a chance to speak with funders.

3:40 – 4:00 pm
Why Teach Muslim Heritage In The Classroom?
Martin Spafford | Co-Author of the new OCR Migration unit (history Curriculum), retired history teacher

4:00 – 4:20 pm
Media Representation
Tharik Hussain | Media Studies teacher. Journalist and Broadcaster

4:20 – 4:40 pm
Where Will Our History Live?
Halima Khanom |Heritage Professional / Everyday Muslim Volunteer

4:40 – 5:00 pm
Feedback and Summary

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Gladstone’s Library: Explore the relationship between art and Christian faith


1st – 3rd April – a weekend at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, near Chester

The relationship between Christian faith and visual art is an immensely rich one but it can also be challenging. On this course you will explore this association from the Middle Ages to the present day, using seeing as a means to thinking about faith, creativity, politics and identity, the imagination and about God.

Sessions include ‘Light and Darkness’, ‘Touch and the Body’, and ‘The Problem of God in Contemporary Art’. There will also be a screening of the film Museum Hours (2012) directed by Jem Cohen. The weekend is led by Debbie Lewer, Senior Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Glasgow. Debbie says:

‘Art is older than the Christian faith, of course, but human beings have always used visual images of one kind or another (figurative, abstract or symbolic, in private and in public) to articulate their individual and collective responses to the divine. People have always argued, sometimes violently, about the nature and place of images in Christian life; I’m fascinated by how works of art themselves can play a part in articulating, challenging, affirming, offending, deepening, revolutionising and even awakening belief.

Residential prices start from £192, non-residential from £150. Discount rates for clergy and students apply.
Read an interview with Debbie here and click here for the full programme. For more information or to book, please call 01244 532350 or email