Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

Museum interludes on holiday

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We had two wonderful weeks camping in the south of France and northern Spain just before Easter. Inevitably both religion and museums got involved. Disappointed by the Guggenheim at Bilbao, by far the best museum we saw was the newly-reestablished Museo de Prehistoria y Arqueologia at Santander. Warmly recommended, and of course containing a great many objects reflecting early human spirituality – but little overtly about ‘religion and museums’.


What Santander did offer, though, was a splendid assembly in a big tent in the city centre of floats used in the Holy Week processions in the city. It was interesting to see the way each was given a museum-style label with the name of the artist and maker, its date, and which religious fraternity it belonged to. I’m just sorry we missed the processions themselves.


Exploring the foothills of the Pyrenees, we came to Lourdes. Within the shrine complex itself is the Museum of St Bernadette. I found it interesting, but ultimately disappointing. It contains a few personal items of Bernadette’s (handwriting, embroidery, veil), though mostly from her later years as a nun, and many interesting photos. Fascinatingly, there is the notebook in which the local policeman recoded his interview with Bernadette after she first saw the Virgin Mary.


When I saw the excellent museum at Knock some years ago, I was disappointed that it made little of the appearance of the Virgin, in the sense of how the villagers to whom she appeared recognised her, and what they might have expected her to look like. On this one point the museum at Lourdes scores over Knock, because it has a plaster statue that Bernadette called the ‘least bad’ of the various artists’ attempts to record what she saw. There’s a splendid paper by Monique Scheer on this whole topic in last December’s Material Religion.


Overall, though, I greatly preferred Knock, and not just because the displays at Lourdes are really rather tired. Knock makes a real effort to set the apparition in the context of rural Irish society, as well as to tell the story of the shrine. Perhaps Lourdes does that much less well because there are other local history museums in the town, notably the private Museum of Lourdes set up in 1954 by the present owner’s grandfather. There’s a wider story to tell though – let’s hope the shrine authorities turn their attention to revamping their museum.Image




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