Interpreting Religion at Museums and Historic Sites

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Gretchen Buggein, Barbara Franco
Interpreting History
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , August
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When Gretchen Buggeln coedited her last book, Religion in Museums: Global and Multidisciplinary Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2017), one reviewer complained that it offered too little practical advice to museum curators. Here is what she clearly wanted: a splendid introduction to interpreting religion in museums and historic sites. This very welcome publication, the sixteenth in AASLH's Interpreting History series, demonstrates that the study of religion in museums has come of age: theory has moved on to practice.

The book has two parts. The first part comprises short reports on initiatives to interpret religion in religious sites, historic sites and museum exhibitions; the second, five short essays by the two editors.

For the first half, the editors have sought out thirty examples of American historic sites and museums that have found original and interesting ways of incorporating religion into their interpretation of social history, and have invited key people to discuss each project. Ptojects come from three kinds of site: religious sites––such as places of worship, utopian religious communities, or "monuments to civil religion" (xiii), historic sites, and museum exhibitions that include religion as part of broader social history.

Imaginatively, each short report is prefaced by a brief paragraph describing the site, which concludes with a simple statement of the problem the project addressed. Thus two senior staff at Ephrata Cloister, the site of an 18th century German Pietist community in Pennsylvania, explain how they tried to respond to the challenge of  "interpreting the complex theology on which the community was based" (13). They were able to utilize their collection of distinctive calligraphy, together with performance of the community's harmonic singing, as a gateway to the founder's theology: "these arts were, in essence, oral and visual prayers designed to prepare the artist for an eternal life with God" (17).

Among the historic sites, newly-conceived one-hour tours at the famous New York Lower East Side Tenement Museum draw out the intimate links between religion, identity, and home life: "Throughout the site, we see how rosaries, statues of Mary, prayer mats, saris, menorahs show a common impulse: the need immigrants have to find a source of comfort in times of adaptation" (73).

The Tenement Museum is one of the few religious or historic sites that commemorate newly-arrived or newly-developed faiths; the overwhelming number of sites discussed here are Protestant, with only a very few Catholic, Jewish, or Mormon. The editors have done their best to find museum exhibitions that interpret other faiths, but it will be interesting to see whether in the future more recently-arrived faiths develop their own historic sites. If they do, this book will offer helpful hints on ways to approach their interpretation.

The "Museum Exhibitions" section includes inter alia Native American themes, ways in which faith was used by Civil War soldiers, and the variety of faiths found in Arab, Black American, the Minnesota Hmong, and Jewish communities. All focus on how the various museums interpreted these themes to visitors, remembering that, as one contributor put it, "exhibitions are primarily visual experiences, not intellectual discussions", (122). Almost all the museums saw material culture as their primary tool. Particularly enjoyable is the Jewish Museum of Maryland's use of everyday food to introduce the diverse traditions within one Jewish faith, where "sacred does not mean immutable; however strong the pull of tradition, the meanings we assign to our food mutate from community to community and evolve from generation to generation", (109). So an Oreo cookie can be meaningful.

The editors's short chapters in the book's second half draw out points from the case-studies in the first half, and very effectively link them to the theory; Buggeln's chapter on Spaces and Places is perhaps particularly valuable. They have occasional oddities; one seems to think (150) that the newly-founded US rejected the divine right of kings––which of course had disappeared a century and a half earlier.

All of these sites are of course American, but in some ways this book is particularly stimulating for foreigners precisely because it is specifically aimed at Americans and American institutions. Some of the differences are predictable, such as the predominance of religious belief among visitors, the hyper-patriotism found in the US, and issues surrounding the church/state divide. Others, though, are more surprising (at least to this reviewer), such as visitors finding such difficulty with the religious practice of celibacy.

Most of both the issues and techniques, though, are common to the interpretation of religion in religion and historic sites worldwide, which makes this book valuable to curators and interpreters everywhere. The core issue, addressed from a number of directions, is the balance between belief and practice. While museums and heritage sites rightly focus on religious practice, without understanding what people believed and how their beliefs informed their practice, "our ability to learn from the past can go only so far" (142).

Barbara Franco offers a highly perceptive account of some of the issues that make religion difficult in museums (though not, surely, as difficult as class!). One challenge is the danger of proselytizing––whether by the museum or by visitors––especially when the religion being interpreted is not safely in the past. She offers, too, useful suggestions on techniques: for example vignettes in period rooms that can illuminate how religion manifests, and has manifested, in the home, and the use of interactives to demonstrate the moral choices that belief can underpin. Additionally, her call for audience research is especially welcome, as it can "help us better understand both what ideas about religion visitors bring with them to museums, and what ideas they take away" (172). 

The lack of an index is unfortunate, and the cover design unimpressive. But all in all this is an excellent handbook which marks a big step forward for the interpretation of religion in visitor attractions, and offers inspiration and models to history museums and historic sites of many different types, and in many different countries.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Crispin Paine is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
January 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gretchen Buggeln is Chair in Christianity and the Arts at Valparaiso University. She previously was associate professor and director of the residential research program at the Winterthur Museum. Buggeln is the author of Temples of Grace: The Material Transformation of Connecticut's Churches, 1970-1840 (2003) and The Suburban Church: Modernism and Community in Postwar America (2015), as well as numerous articles on religious architecture and artifacts, museums, and American religious history. She is co-editor, with Crispin Paine and S. Brent Plate, of Religion in Museums: Global and Multidisciplinary Perspectives (2017).

Barbara Franco has had a long career in American history museums as a curator and administrator and most recently served as Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and as Founding Director of the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum. She served as a past chairman of the American Association for State and Local History and co-edited Ideas and Images: Developing Interpretive History Exhibits (1992). She has written numerous articles on museum practice and historical interpretation, and currently works as an independent scholar and museum consultant.


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