Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

Dutch students on religion in museums

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Students on the International Master of Museology course at the Reinwardt Academie in Amsterdam, last year visited the Catherijneconvent Museum. This museum, housed in a former convent in Utrecht, is devoted to the story of Christianity in the Netherlands.


Some of the questions they raised seem so insightful and interesting that Hester Dibbits, the course’s Director, kindly allowed them to be reproduced here.



Before we can consider the manner of presentation of a religion, we need to first reflect on the social role of religious museums.


Isolating religious objects in a museum allows for them to be contemplated fron an aesthetic perspective and therefore valued for their artistic merit. This represents a new level of value, however it undermines the objects religious (formerly primary) function. Does this loss represent a total undermining of the objects “true” worth? No longer functioning in the manner intended, what does the object become?


How do museums represent religion to children? It seems impossible to do so in a ‘neutral’ manner. As soon as there is an accumulation of religious items, the space gains a significance, gravitas and momentum. When such an atmosphere is presented in an educational capacity, how can the museum not fall victim to an unintentional indoctrination?


Feelings are nature, interpretations of religiousness or spiritualism are nurture. If we have the nurture part, maybe we can come closer to an universal core of the heritage/object? What is it that gives us this ‘higher’ experience? Culture or nature?


How come the cathedral wants to be museum? How/why does the museum present a more religious experience than the cathedral?


How does the natural fluctuation in atmosphere between church and museum (spiritual/sensual vs aesthetic) effect the presentation and experience of the religious object? For example: the same object functions very differently in the distinctly reverent cathedral with it specific architecture than it does in the museum…


How do we deal with the notion of sacredness of a pulpit within the (church) Dom and in the museum context? Should we allow the tourist to step and see everything or there should be a restriction, and why?


At what level should the religious collection be musealized and who has the authority of interpretation: is it the museum or the religious leaders?


While being in a church, objects like icons and statues are mostly seen as religious items, and “beauty” doesn’t play much role. Items are not “judged” and would hardly ever replaced by prettier ones. In the museum, on the contrary, the curator often uses the more beautiful objects to tell the story in more attractive way.


Does it mean that our children, who will be raised in non-religious society, will get “prettier” vision on religious art and traditions? How to keep it true to the origin? Which moment should be seen then as original? And is it so important at the end, if community stopped to maintain the tradtion and it’s only museum there to safeguard it?


Does the replacing increase the value of an object (because then it’s studied by museum staff, gets more attention by broader audience, it’s historical and aesthetic value is highlighted more) or does it cut the connection to the original space and through that ‘kill’ the ‘truth’ about the object? [ -Is an object true to itself when it’s taken out of the original context, or is it ‘dead’ anyway if it’s not used by the community anymore?]


Is it practical, ethical or necessary to compare and contrast a museum on Christianity with a cathedral since both has totally different mission, education purposes, collection quality and policy?


Why the church in Utrecht is more commercial then the Museum Catherijneconvent?


  • How to deal with the creator?
  • What behaviour should be maintained around the object?
  • Can you speak of high and low religious art (since some items are on display for esthetical reasons)
  • Is architecture part of religious belief or only functional design?
  • Why show items in time when most churches are filled throughout and don’t show one style (ism)
  • How do you collect church songs?
  • Is comparing church/believes not as comparing homes in the same region?
  • When discussing the real […], why not put more signs on the history of the Dom church in the Cathedral?

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