Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

Religious Studies on Display: The exhibition “Religion in Ex-Position”

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Carina Branković and Simone Heidbrink, Institute for Religious Studies, University of Heidelberg (Germany)

The exhibition Religion in Ex-Position was opened on June 5th 2014 and is currently still on display. As co-operation of the University Museum and the Institute for Religious Studies at the University of Heidelberg (Germany), the exhibition was a teaching project, organized by lecturers, students and museum experts. Using various thematic key aspects and practical examples, a multitude of approaches from the fields of Religious and Cultural Studies are addressed. The result is a hands-on exhibition, focussing on theories and methods of the discipline of Religious Studies, whose history traces back to the early 20th century.

plakat-expositionThe central question “How to research religion(s)?” invites visitors to become acquainted with the scholarship of religion, to adopt different perspectives and to challenge views. A selection of approaches by historical and recent scholars of religion are presented along with criticism of religion, the difficulty of defining religion and the different perspectives on religion. The exhibition and its exhibits intend to illustrate the diversity and plurality of the study of religion. Using object installations, important academic concepts are made ‘tangible’ and comprehensible. And last but not least religious actors have a say. – In most cases, these are the visitors themselves who (implicitely as well as explicitely) are encouraged to become part of the local and contemporary history of religion. The constructivist character of the exhibits, which aim at multiperspectivity and interactivity entail visitors to actively articulate their own positions. The scientific perspective on those positions, which are being collected and documented, is the main focus of actor-centered scholarship of religion. Consequently, the exhibition Religion in Ex-Position aims at popularizing the discipline of Religious Studies and its variety of socially and culturally relevant topics and approaches.

Formative Contexts and Focus of Content

For many centuries, the study of religion has largely been dominated by the study of texts. However, owing to different cultural turns beginning with the 1950s, the materiality of religion has increasingly moved to the fore. In consequence, the editors of the journal Material Religion demand in their inaugural issue that

“the study of texts should be joined to the study of objects, spaces, images, and all the practices that put these items to use in order to arrive at a more robust account of how religion works in the lives of its adherents and in the societies that shape and are shaped by a religion” (Meyer et al. 2005, p. 6).



Following the postulate that „religion is fundamentally material in practice“ (ibid., p. 5), the curriculum of Religious Studies at the University of Heidelberg heavily draws on the theories and concepts of Material Religion, Ritual Studies and other material-based approaches. But even though the (re-)presentation of religion(s) in museum contexts have been subject to research and teaching, the perspective had always been an outside view. The exhibition Religion in Ex-Position changed this by enabling students and researchers to taking on the role of museum curators. After it was decided to ‘do’ an exhibition within the context of a university course, the logical question that followed was, what it actually was that we wanted to ‘exhibit’.

Due to the fact that the lowest common factor was the familiarity of all participants with the concepts and theories of historical and recent Religious Studies, the decision was made, to realize an exhibition on Religious Studies as a discipline. But how to communicate complex theoretical and methodological concepts to a lay audience? Is it possible to put abstract academic approaches on display? We all agreed that we didn’t want to show (only) books. Thus we all needed to be creative. Combining recent approaches of Museum Studies and Material Religion, the exhibition was conceptualized to serve as intermediary between academic science and the public by translating abstract theories into interactive installations, enabling visitors to practically ‘experience’ Religious Studies and ‘playfully’ gain access to complex issues concerning the science of religion. The ‘simplification’ of complex matters also comprised the level of the texts. The explanations accompanying the exhibits avoid technical terms and directly address the audience who is (physically as well as mentally and sensually) ‘involved’ into the exhibition context, which only raises questions. – Knowing well, that “exhibition-making is not displaying truth, but interpretation” (Hein 1998, p. 177), the exhibits and texts refrain from pre-fabricated ‘answers’, engaging the visitors to find their own responses and create (religious) meaning for themselves. As Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, who sustainably defined contemporary Museum Studies, pointed out:

“Meaning is produced by museum visitors from their own point of view, using whatever skills and knowledge they may have, according to the contingent demands of the moment, and in response to the experience offered by the museum” (Hooper-Greenhill 2000, p. 5).

Essential for this procedure is a constructivist approach not only towards religion but also towards museums and the ways how exhibitions are designed and presented:


The exhibition space

“The Constructivist Museum needs to publicly acknowledge its own role in constructing meaning when it displays objects and develops programs. It’s important that this human decision-making process – full of compromise, personal views, opinions, prejudices and well-meaning efforts to provide the best possible material for the public – be opened to view. (…) In addition, the constructivist museum will increasingly include the public in the developments of exhibitions” (Hein 1998, p. 177).

However, even if we intentionally left the meaning potential open and ambigious, in most cases we did have a certain agenda, we intended certain ‘readings’ of the exhibits at least to a certain degree. As Hooper-Greenhill puts it:

“Individual objects have shifting and ambiguous relationships to meaning. Being themselves mute, their significance is open to interpretation. They may be viewed from a number of positions, which may be diverse in history and culture. They may be drawn into a conversation through a number of different strategies (…) Objects are subject to multiple interpretations, some of which may be contradictory” (Hooper-Greenhill 2000, p. 3).

In the following, we will discuss some exhibits along with their ‘object histories’ and their ways of presentation within the context of the exhibition.

The ‘Armchair Scholar’ aka Friedrich Max Mueller

armchair scholar

The ‘Armchair Scholar’

The ‘Armchair Scholar’ is an orchestrated 19th century study, complete with a (rather battered) armchair which is (literally!) based on old books, a side table, a lamp, a pipe and binoculars. On the seat a multitude of books are stacked and on top an open book is arranged with a magnifier glass. The magnifier glass as well as the binoculars point to two different perspectives which are characteristical for the study of religion at the turn of the century: By focussing on certain aspects of religion other areas fade out or are shielded and become invisible for the researcher’s eye.

The inherently critical installation points to the early history of Religious Studies in the late 19th and early 20th century, when scholars did research on ‘alien’ cultures and religions exclusively within the realm of their study. Without ever travelling, they drew their knowledge only from (‘holy’) books or derived second-hand information from missionaries, colonial civil servants, or adventurers. As one of those scholars, Friedrich Max Mueller (1823-1900) is exceptionally important for the formation of Religious Studies as a discipline focussing on comparative text studies outside Christian Theology. The contemporary life-world of the people in India, whose ‘sacred texts’ were the main focus of his research, did not play any role within his study whatsoever:

My India is not on the surface, but lay many centuries beneath it; and as to paying a globetrotter‘s visit to Calcutta or Bombay, I might as well walk through Oxford Street or Bond Street” (Mueller 1902, p. 110f.).

Even though the installation is criticising the armchair scholars’ modus operandi, it also pays homage to former reseachers like Mueller. Even though we (rightly) distance ourselves from their approaches towards foreign cultures and religions, their merits for the discipline of Religious Studies must not be forgotten. While the focus of contemporary research lies heavily on empirical and ethnographical approaches and the perspective of the religious actors, the analysis of texts still plays an important role in order to gain comprehensive understanding of religion(s) and the culture it is embedded in.

The ‘Religious (Super-)Market’

“As Western Europe becomes an increasingly ‘religious supermarket’ society, with a pick’n’mix spirituality, perhaps museums have an increased duty to present religion straight. They are, after all, one of the ways – and not an unimportant one – in which society reflects itself, celebrates its beliefs and attitudes, and seeks to pass on its understanding of the world” (Paine 2000, p. xiii).

religious supermarket

The ‘Religious (Super-)Market’

By means of our exhibit ‘the Religious (Super-)Market’ the statement quoted above had been taken literally. Instead of presenting idealtype religion according to tradition and dogma, we put contemporary and ‘ordinary’ religion on display: as a patchwork of different ideas, practices and doctrines which are individually selected and mixed. Even though contradictory from an outside perspective, these combinations are usually regarded as meaningful and coherent by the individual actors. The analogy to a supermarket scenario lead to the concept of the religious market and was accordingly displayed as miniature corner shop. The shelves are filled with conventional goods you would expect in a store. – However, with slight modifications.

These subtle changes mostly concern the labels which were reframed to adopt religious meaning. “Kinderschokolade” (chocolate for children) was transformed to “Hindu Schokolade” (referring to the religion in India), “Butterkekse” (“butter cookies”) morphed into “Buddha-Kekse” (“Buddha cookies”), etc. The object text invites the visitors to load the shopping cart according to their own religious dispositions. By presenting the findings of modern-time religion and putting it on display in the context of an exhibition, the installation pays respect to contemporary religion – and at the same time discloses its underlying mechanics. In accordance to Paine (from the quote above), the exhibit thus does (quite consciously) not present religion “straight” (in a normative perspective) but pays tribute to the ways “in which society reflects itself, celebrates its beliefs and attitudes, and seeks to pass on its understanding of the world” (ibid.) – without wagging a finger!

Defining Religion – A ‘Lottery’

lottery 1

The ‘lottery’

Defining religion has always been one of the leading (and most debated) questions in Religious Studies. In the exhibition, this ‘problem’ is represented as a lottery where a multitude of statements on religion (taken from philosophy, theology, natural sciences as well as popular culture) are written down on slips of paper. These are then put into lottery balls. Visitors are invited to ‘draw their lot’. In the following, they are not only asked for their opinion on their ‘lucky draw’ (by means of a pinboard), but are also requested to write down their own ‘definition’ of religion. By putting their personal statement into the lottery, they make it available for later visitors to ponder, reflect and comment upon. – Thus, the exhibit does not only illustrate constructivism and a constructivist approach towards religion, it also makes each visitor an active, important and ‘visible’/‘material’ subject of the discourses on local and contemporary history of religion.

Mirror and Spectacles – Reflections and Perspectives


The mirror

Perception and perspectives are comprehensive topics that are broached by nearly all exhibits in one way or another. In order to represent the significance of recalling one’s own points of view which determines the worldview and the set of meanings, the first exhibit is simply a mirror.

However, one’s identity is never completely plain and even but might comprise fissures and fractures, breaks and dull spots. Consequently, the mirror’s rim is corrugated and is cut in the middle with the two halves not interlocking. The many visitors’ fingerprints adding up to the picture of a not quite clean and shiny surface. Looking into the mirror, the visitor not only sees himself, but part of the exhibition space including exhibits and possibly other visitors.

This reminds of the importance of self-reflecting one’s socio-cultural background which always affects the worldview and as a result also one’s standpoint regarding religion. This self-reflection is especially relevant for scholars of religion, who not only describe and reconstruct, but also interpret their findings on the basis of their own weltanschauung.

Likewise, many exhibits feature different sets of (mostly old and used) spectacles with different lenses as adornment and reminder of the plurality of perspectives, the necessity of scrutinizing one’s own set of meanings and to adapting one’s worldview in order to gain new insights.


In Religious Objects in Museums: Private Lives and Public Duties (2013) Crispin Paine criticises the fact that religious museum displays mostly consist of doctrinal and traditional objects from “official religion”. Pointing to the individual bedroom altar of a friend he remarks that “about some aspects of religion most museums say virtually nothing at all” (Paine 2013, p. 21). Artifacts reflecting everyday religiousness and religious practices of individual actors (be it in a historical or contemporary perspective) are hardly seen in museum contexts:

“(T)his is because curators take the easy option of turning to official religion for their information and collections (finding out what people actually do would require a very great deal of research), partly it is because doing anything else might cause a row. In Europe, the sharp decline in formal religious practice has opened ever wider the gap between ‘official’ religion that is displayed (when it is) in our museums, and religion as it is increasingly lived – the pick-’n’-mix religion that reflects the indivualistic ideology of our society” (Paine 2013, p. 22).

lottery 2

The ‘Lottery’ pinboard

This is undoubtedly true. However, one of the problems in displaying ‘individual religiousness’ lies in the dilemma, that it is mostly ‘invisible’. Due to the fact, that people practice ‘their’ religion(s) usually in private, religious settings like the said bedroom altar remain hidden. For scholars of religion as well as museologists the only chance to approach these kinds of religious practices is to communicate with people, question them about their beliefs and ask them for religious objects that bear meaning for them. But how to do that? And how to deal with the results of these interrogations and encounters? How to treat the objects that might be trivial to some, but ‘holy’ to others? These are challenges that need to be met before even thinking of exhibiting ‘lived religion’.

The exhibition Religion in Ex-Position is situated in exactly this intersection between contemporary Material Religion and the theories and concepts of Religious Studies that focusses on the material at hand. Visuality is both the object and the method of the exhibition. Knowing that “the study of religious visual culture is (…) the study of images, but also the practices and habits that rely on images as well as the attitudes and preconceptions that inform vision as a cultural act“ (Morgan 2005, p. 3), the objects on display bear double meaning. They are in itself relevant religious items, some more, some less distinct. On the other hand they are used as vehicles (of “cultural acts”) which refer to wider issues and larger contexts, e.g. the underlying theoretical concepts of Religious Studies as a discipline and illustrate the ways in which contemporary science of religion is being understood and conducted. Visuality, i.e. the materiality of the objects serve as didactic tool to interlink the theory of an academic discipline with the plurality of individual religious utterances and manifestations. According to David Morgan:

“vision happens in and as culture, as the tools, artifacts, assumptions, learned behaviors, and unconscious promptings that are exerted in images“ (Morgan 2005, p. 3).

In the exhibition Religion in Ex-Position, these interconnections of visuality/materiality and its underlying socio-cultural mechanisms are being applied as well as revealed for displaying the abstract concepts and approaches of a scientific discipline. As such, the exhibition seeks to bringing the theories and concepts of the ‘Materiality of Religion’ to a new level by taking the first step towards a ‘Materiality of Religious Studies’.


Hein, George E.: Learning in the Museum, London 1998.

Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean: Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, London 2000.

Meyer, Birgit et al. (eds.): “Editorial Statement”, in: Material Religion 1/1 2005, p. 4-9.

Morgan, David: The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice, Berkeley / Los Angeles / London 2005.

Mueller, Friedrich Max: Life and Letter Vol. 2, London 1902.

Paine, Crispin: “Preface”, in: idem (ed.): Godly Things: Museums, Objects and Religion, London and New York 2000, p. xiii-xvii.

Paine, Crispin: Religious Objects in Museums: Private Lives and Public Duties, London 2013.

Read more about the project at the University’s website  and the exhibition’s Facebook site.


One thought on “Religious Studies on Display: The exhibition “Religion in Ex-Position”

  1. thank you very much for this post. I was very curious about this exhibition but I can’t read German

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