Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

Finding publications


Even ten years ago there was little written from any sort of scholarly perspective about religion in museum. Nowadays it’s very different, but it’s still sometimes difficult to be sure one’s tracked down everything relevant and useful.

I’ve just come across three different things which I confess I hadn’t seen before, and which seem likely to be interesting to anyone concerned with religion in museums. The first is:

Shatanawi, Mirjam, 2012. ‘Curating Against Dissent: Museums and the Pubic Debate on Islam’ in Christopher Flood, Stephen Hutchings, Galina Miazhevich and Henri Nickels (eds.), Political and Cultural Representations of Muslims: Islam in the Plural. Leiden: Brill.

I’ve been shamefully unsuccessful in the past in discovering discussion of Islam in museums – beginning to appreciate that there’s much more than I realised. Mirjam Shatanawi is Curator of the Middle East and North Africa at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, and here she argues that the efforts some museums are making to counter Islamophobia is undermined by their use of historic art collections to do their arguing.

‘[T]he lack of collections from the colonial or postcolonial periods forces museums intending to promote a ‘bridge of understanding’ to locate the greatness of the Muslim world in the past… Consequently it reinforces the proposition of a contrast between contemporary Islam (stagnant and intolerant) and early Islam (advanced and tolerant), which informs much of global politics.’

Could someone post a reading list on Islam in museums?

I’m delighted, too, to come across someone who shares my interest in how museums and shrines elide, especially it seems in Asia, and how this is ignored in the Euro-American literature on museums:

Robson, James. 2010. Faith in Museums: On the Confluence of Religion and Religious Sites in Asia. Publications of the Modern Languages Association of America 125:1.

Googling ‘religion in museums’ I came across this, and sent for a copy:

Casanowicz, Immanuel Moses. 1929. Collections of Objects of Religious Ceremonial in the United States National Museum. Bulletin 148. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

On one level it’s a classic period piece, for example deploring the past

‘tendency of museums abroad… to deal only with the religious practices and ideas of the barbarous nations, and to treat sparingly those of the more civilized and cultivated nations of the earth.’

So the ‘religions’ it deals with are Jewish, Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Armenian, Mohammedan [sic], Hindu, Buddhist, Parsee and Shinto. A revealing selection – and no Protestantism!

But this is also a very useful book, with invaluable descriptions of ceremonial objects and their function – sometimes a rather random and unbalanced selection, but that’s museums, and indeed is their strength. Why do museums nowadays only seem to publish this kind of catalogue for temporary exhibitions? A search for ‘religion’ on the Smithsonian’s database gets 39,932 objects – but only the barest information about them.

Incidentally, Immanuel Moses Casonowicz sounds an interesting figure. His obituary in the Smithsonian’s annual report for 1927 reads:

‘Immanuel Moses Casanowicz, assistant curator of the division of Old World archeology in the National Museum, died September 26, 1927, at the age of 74. He was born at Zholudok, Russia, July 25,1853, and studied at the University of Basle, Switzerland. Between 1880 and 1886 he was an instructor, first at the Evangelische Predigerschule at Basle, and later at the German Theological School of Newark at Bloomfield, N. J. In 1892 he received the degree of Ph. D. from Johns Hopkins University, and the same year entered the service of the National Museum, where he remained for the rest of his life.’

‘Doctor Casanowicz was a recognized authority in the field of Old World archeology, specializing in the subject of comparative religions. He published several papers on the various religions of man, and at the time of his death another was left practically completed, which would have closed the series. He was a member of the American Oriental Society and vice president of the Anthropological Society of Washington. Doctor Casanowicz was a man of broad culture, and his place on the Museum staff will be difficult to fill.’


5 thoughts on “Finding publications

  1. There is also an extensive bibliography in my chapter ‘A question of faith, museums as sacred and secular spaces’: chapter 9, pp 125-141 in Museums, Equality and Social Justice, (eds) Sandell, R & Nightingale, E. April 2012 Routledge
    John Reeve

  2. Thanks John. I’ll check this out. Steph

  3. Me too, as soon as I can get to a library. I’m so sorry this wasn’t out in time to (no doubt) correct lots of mistakes in my book! Crispin

  4. And another important-looking book, with a number of papers on Judaism in museums, is Visualizing and Exhibiting Jewish Space and History (Studies in Contemporary Jewry, vol. 26). Richard I. Cohen, editor. Oxford University Press, 2012. Too much to read! Crispin

  5. I was recently given a copy of Islamic Art and the Museum: Approaches to Art and Archaeology of the Muslim World in the Twenty-First Century. Junod, Khalil, Weber and Wolf, eds. Saqi, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s