Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

‘Religious Objects in Museums’

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My book on ‘Religious Objects in Museums: Private Lives and Public Duties’ has at last been published by Bloomsbury. (Bloomsbury recently swallowed Berg, once an office above a greengrocer’s shop in Oxford’s Cowley Road. Back in 2004 they bravely took on the journal Material Religion. The contrast with Bloomsbury’s 18th century palace in London’s Bedford Square could scarcely be greater!)

The book is aimed at everyone interested in how objects work, how religion works and how museums work. I believe it’s the first book to investigate the variety of roles ‘religious’ objects take on in a museum. Using examples from museums throughout the world, and objects from many different faiths, it examines how religious objects take on new roles and build new relationships with their visitors, donors and curators. They are curated, visited, worshipped, claimed back, respected (or not), converted, hated, feared, admired as beautiful, and used to tell stories both true and false.


  • Introduction
  • Objects Curated
  • Objects Visited
  • Objects Worshipped and Worshipping
  • Objects Claimed
  • Objects Respected
  • Objects Demanding and Dangerous
  • Objects Elevating
  • Objects Militant
  • Objects Promotional
  • Objects Explanatory and Evidential
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References

Ivan Gaskell, Professor of Cultural History and of Museum Studies, Bard Graduate Center, New York City, has given it an astonishingly generous puff:

“The author takes his readers on a magical world tour of tangible things that were once-and in some cases still are-used in a huge variety of religious settings. With a cosmopolitan lightness of touch, Paine demonstrates the radical instability of such things, even once they have found their way into museums. They do not have a single meaning or use, but are almost infinitely adaptable. Above all, he deftly shows that the “distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘mundane’ is a curious modern Western idea, incomprehensible to most people at most times.” No other book introduces readers more engagingly to the puzzles surrounding how museums address the sacred realm worldwide.”

By the way, if you want to buy a copy, it’s worth shopping around – book prices are quite mysterious…

Crispin Paine



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