Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

Three trips

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I had three trips abroad towards the end of last year – all I think held lessons for religion in museums, and two were specifically about it.

The first trip was to the US, to give a talk at the Institute of Sacred Music, part of Yale University. Originally set up – and clearly very well endowed – to improve the standard of music in Methodist churches, it’s greatly extended its remit, and is now concerned with all the ‘liturgical’ arts. Its staff work closely with other Yale departments, especially Divinity and Art History, and it has a wonderful programme of one-year fellowships. It also has an enterprising small gallery, which while I was there was showing three artists engaged with issues of ‘material remembrances of love and loss.’

This was my first trip to Yale, which fairly bowled me over. The University Art Gallery has staggering collections, and is much more than a conventional ‘art gallery’, with splendid Asian, African and Ancient Middle Eastern collections. Another major plus was the Yale Centre for British Art. In a stunning Louis Kahn building, this Paul Mellon foundation holds a wonderful collection of our heritage, especially strong on the Georgians.


The Mithraeum from Dura-Europos in the Yale University Art Gallery


Also in New Haven, I was excited to discover the Knights of Columbus Museum. This is a classy example of that kind of ‘religious museum’ that is promoted by a religious organisation – like the Museum of Methodism, say, or indeed the Parsi museum in Mumbai described in a recent post. The Knights are a large (and very powerful) Catholic men’s organisation, founded in New Haven in 1882, and their museum is appropriately large, modern and self-confident. It tells the story of the Knights, and something of their present work – though as always one needs to read between the lines somewhat: the Knights have attracted their share of controversy.


An interesting feature is the side-gallery devoted to the vestments recovered from the body of the Founder when his tomb was moved in 1982. In effect this is a shrine, and indeed replicas of his original Memorial Card are available ‘reprinted on the occasion of the diocesan process for the canonization of the Servant of God, Father Michael J. McGivney.’ One is, I thought, expected to invoke his prayers.


The Father McGivney shrine

 When I was there the museum was hosting an exhibition of a large and very fine private collection of Russian icons. For once these were really presented as icons, ‘Windows on Heaven’, rather than as works of art. Visitors were invited to take away prayer cards, with notes on praying with icons, and prayers to Jesus Christ, St Nicholas, and the Mother of God of Vladimir.

From New Haven I took the train (not nearly as interesting as I’d hoped) down to Philadelphia, and then out to the suburb of Bryn Athyn. This is an extraordinary place. On one level it’s a very prosperous enclave on the edge of a city that’s far from prosperous. But on another, it’s a Swedenborgian settlement, founded – and largely financed – by a Philadelphia glass magnate early last century. The settlement comprises one big ‘Renaissance’ style house built by the founder, a ‘Romanesque’ castle, another large house now the ‘New Church’ headquarters, a LARGE Gothic cathedral, a college and a number of private homes. It’s the castle – ‘Glencairn’ – I went to see, for that is now a museum of religion.


The great hall of Glencairn

In fact I’ve argued that it’s the oldest museum of religion, for it traces its origins to 1878, when leading New Church members John Pitcairn and William Belade set out on their Middle East travels, from which they were to return with a collection that ultimately became the Glencairn Museum.

The museum is a fascinating mixture of those (and later) collections, united with medieval (mainly French) sculpture and stained glass, acquired to inspire the craftsmen building the cathedral. The quality of much of it is superb, and the way objects are integrated into the castle fabric fascinating.

My (extremely generous) hosts there were the Director Brian Henderson and the curator Ed Gyllenhaal. They and their colleagues and Trustees are engaged in a review of the aims and methods of the museum – a process that could benefit everyone involved in thinking about the role of religion in museums.

 One splendid afternoon Ed and his wife Kirsten took me out to Lancaster County to see something of the Amish farmlands. The Menonite Information Centre there has a full-scale reconstruction of the ‘Tabernacle’, the tent that housed the Israelites’s Holy of Holies. There are regular sittings in which volunteers introduce and explain the Tabernacle, all from a Menonite Christian the point of view. To an outsider this Protestant Christian emphasis on the Old Testament is intriguing.

On the way home we stopped off at yet another (almost) ‘religious’ museum, the National Christmas Centre. This is a huge private collection, imaginatively displayed, of everything associated with Christmas, from Santa’s North Pole Workshop and Reindeer Barn to a 1950s Woolworth’s, (which brought back present-buying in Woollies as a child.) Ed and Kirsten were particularly excited by the collection of Christmas cribs (‘Nativities’ in America), since they were just preparing a Nativities exhibition at the Glencairn Museum.



My next autumn expedition was just a family holiday – to replace the summer holiday we had to cancel. So we spent a week mostly lying on the beach in Cyprus in hot sun, while all at home shivered. But we took in a few sights too, most notably two Orthodox museums: the Byzantine Museum at Paphos, housed in part of the bishop’s palace, and the monastery museum at Kykkos Monastery. The Byzantine Museum, run by the diocese, has a splendid collection of icons. Its aim is ‘the saving, protection, promotion and scientific study of these inestimable treasures of Byzantine art’ – clearly at the art/heritage end of the spectrum. Kykkos Monastery museum tries to position itself at the other end of the spectrum:


The Museum of the Holy Monastery of Kykkos has followed all the formal specifications of modern museums but it is substantially different from them. It is not a museum that is completely separate from the functional space of the items it exhibits and neither is it a museum that contains exhibits only on the strength of their artistic value as are the museums of ancient Greek art.

It is a museum situated inside the monastery itself and like its treasury it forms an integral part of it. Its exhibits such as icons, holy objects, woodcarvings, vestments, embroideries, manuscripts etc, are exhibited as part of the living adoration and the history of the monastery.

The Museum contains invaluable religious relics which have been collected by the zeal and piety of the monks, objects that have overcome the ravages of time, objects full of meaning and history.

The visitors who come to the Holy Monastery of Kykkos for worship and contemplation and who visit the Museum can come across the piety that inspired the exhibits and they can also get to know some of the history of the Monastery and of the Cyprus Church more generally.


To be honest the ‘substantial difference’ is not that apparent to the casual visitor; it’s smarter and richer than the Byzantine Museum, but the approach to display is equally conventional. Its collection though is much wider – lots of vestments, altar plate and so on (and even a wooden antimension – a thrill for us sad aficionados of portable altars.) The Kykkos Monastery, though, is notable for its splendid site up in the pine-clad Troodos mountains (we saw a mouflon on the way up), its glorious church, its role as the centre and symbol of Greek nationalism on Cyprus, and its souvenir shops catering to the many pilgrims.


New York State and Maryland

My third trip was again to the US. First to Hamilton College near Utica in New York State, as the guest of Brent Plate, the managing editor of Material Religion. Another warm American welcome from Brent and many colleagues in this classic liberal arts college – its campus is apparently often used for ‘college’ movies.

The astonishing college library has a special collection of ‘Communal Society’ material. Strongest on the Shakers, it also has material on the Amana, Ephrata, Koreshan Unity, New Harmony, and Oneida Communities – plus some on the Panacea Society of Bedford, England. A nice coincidence – I’ve just joined the Panacea Museum’s advisory committee – see the blog below.

From Hamilton I flew down to Baltimore for the American Academy of Religion conference. Despite the city fathers’ efforts to make the waterfront areas lively venues for tourists, (and the roadside gingko trees), downtown Baltimore (all I saw) is deeply depressing – caverns between huge office blocks and hotels, populated by homeless people. What transformed the city was the Walters Art Gallery. Another stunning collection, most notably for me the early medieval European material and – extraordinarily – the Ethiopian stuff. It’s a normal art gallery, with minimal contextualisation (except for a fun ’17th century’ Cabinet of Curiosities), but a lesson in what effective interpretation can be achieved by well-written and imaginative labels.


The Ethiopian and Armenian section in the Walters Art Gallery

The recently-retired Director of the Walters, Gary Viken, was one of the panelists at our conference session on Sacred Objects in Secular Museums. The panel was chaired by Brent, and the other panellists were Gretchen Buggeln and me.  I won’t describe the session because it’s been entertainingly written up by Menachem Wecker here.

I confess that I found the conference as a whole disappointing. Apart from ours there were probably some half-dozen sessions that focussed on the material – in a conference of 1,268 sessions that attracted 10,239 delegates.

Which allowed me to respond to Gretchen’s discussion of the ‘sanctity’ of modern museum buildings by skiving off to Washington to look at The Holocaust Museum and the Museum of the American Indian. Her suggestion that museum restaurants and shops could be ‘sacred’ had prompted some discussion, not to say amusement, at the panel, but I had loved her definition that ‘the sacred is the object of special attention.’ It seems to parallel J. Z. Smith’s argument that ritual is powerful because it focusses attention on everyday actions. Do museums, then, do the same?

The Holocaust Museum certainly had overtones of sanctity in this sense, and indeed of ritual. I thought it was very good indeed, slightly I confess to my surprise. It makes a real effort to move beyond the historical Holocaust to address issues of oppression in the world today. Mind, I thought the highlighting in a special exhibition of problems in Sudan was an odd choice.


The National Museum of the American Indian

I greatly enjoyed the National Museum of the American Indian, and learned a lot. Again, I particularly liked the emphasis on the present day, and the lives of Native Americans in the 21st century. They are planning to redo the main galleries, but at present they are Our Universes, focussing on Native cosmology, Our Peoples, the stories of a selection of Native peoples, and Our Lives, Native peoples today. I was interested to see whether, in Our Universes, the museum does passively accept the ‘traditional’ Native view of their origins etc – the museum has been criticised for ignoring scientific explanations. In fact. though, all the text I read had been very carefully written to foreground ‘traditional’ views while not overtly contradicting modern scientific understandings of the universe or archaeological explanations of the origins of human beings in North America. I found the gallery fascinating and wish I had had more time.




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