Religion in Museums

Global and Multidisciplinary Perspectives

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Gretchen Buggeln, Crispin Paine, S. Brent Plate
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the United Kingdom we have a common idiomatic phrase—“does exactly what it says on the tin”—meaning that the name of the product is an accurate description of its qualities. This is very much what sprung to mind when reading Religion in Museums: Global and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, an edited collection by Gretchen Bruggeln, Crispin Paine, and S. Brent Plate on the display and engagement of religion within museums. This is a timely and accessible text that will be of great use to a range of scholars, teachers, students, and practitioners.

Overall, this book is comprised of twenty-seven very short pieces—many of which also include images—on different aspects of the very complicated relationship between religion and museums. The book is divided into six distinct sections: Museum buildings; Objects, Museums, Religions; Responses to Objects, Museums and Religions; Museum Collecting and Research; Museums Interpretation of Religion and Religious Objects; and Presenting Religion in a Variety of Museums. The introduction notes that these six sections are “meant to be heuristic, and we believe they are helpful ways to parse the variety of ways of connection religion and museums” (3). There is also an introduction and afterward by all three editors—in an unusual-but-effective-approach, each writes their own section or response rather than providing a singular voice to summarise the theme. The authors of each of the short chapters are a mixture of scholars, artists, and museums workers adding a further breath of expertise that is often lacking in edited collections.

For many, the display of religion within a museum could be something they simply accept as unproblematic while for others, the problem lies with the issue of acquisition means and speaking “for” cultures—which are potentially homogenized. However, while somewhat addressing the latter— in Tom L. Freudenheim’s chapter “Museums and Religion: Uneasy Companions” (181-88) and Brugglen’s chapter “Conversing with the Past: First-person Religion Programming at Colonial Williamsburg” (189-96)—this edited collection focuses more on raising significant questions in relation to the study of religion, questions such as: “What are we defining as religion (and why) through what we display in museums?”, “What connection or refutation of the secularisation thesis can be found in the treatment of religion in museums?”, “What can we learn about religion as a concept from the material objects connected to it?” For example, Graham Howes focuses on the reactions of individuals to a specific art exhibit—Seeing Salvation—at the National Gallery in 2000, which aimed to show how the figure of Christ had been represented in the Western tradition, and to explore the power of the religious image within that tradition. It also sought, as the catalogue put it, to demonstrate that modern secular audiences can engage with the masterpieces of Christian art at an emotional as well as a purely aesthetic or historical level (95). It is telling that the catalogue utilizes a secular religious binary as a given, which Howe does not, and more importantly, is not reflected in the responses of his interviewees who had visited the exhibit.

Another example can be drawn from the chapter by Amanda Millay Hughes who argues that museums and galleries can serve to move religion from the intellectual realm to the material, physiological realm in a way that can be connected with the Benedictine tradition of “radical hospitality” which aims to be transformative for the guest or in the context of a museums visitor (166).

When museum directors and curators acknowledge their own radical hospitality in considering the ideas that led them to the selection of objects, their placement, and their interpretation, the results are transformative. I witnessed this shift in the work of the Ackland Art Museum's 'Five Faiths Project’. Small and often incremental changes were recommended by a wide range of constituents … these recommendations stirred tensions between academic privacy and object preservation on the one hand, and the values of transparency and access touted by educators and community members on the other(167).

Religion and Museums is an interesting way to consider the questions of control of the issue of religion, especially in relation to what a religion is or is not, what constitutes a religious artifact and why, and how faith based communities want to be represented. This is an approach that will be an excellent introduction to the field(s) for undergraduate students, and presented in such a way as to stimulate potential teaching activities such as having the students attempt to resolve the issues raised in the chapter to create virtual displays of their own.

There is a concerted effort made to move beyond Western approaches to religion, and to include voices and expertise from groups who are often displayed, but not always consulted. We find this in a number of chapters, such as “Native Americans on the National Mall” by Buggeln, Douglas Cardinal and Tim Johnson, “Community-Led Museums Exploring Religious Life in Canada: Abbortsford’s Sikh Heritage Museum and Mennonite Heritage Museum” by Matthew Francis, and “Islam and Museums: Learning and Outreach” by John Reeve. However, it must be noted that the majority of the text does focus on Western approaches to religion and the display of religion in Western museums and galleries. This is perhaps the only weakness to the text, but it is a minor one given that the text positions itself as a means of raising questions that have not yet been answered. Such a text could well spur further studies in non-Western displays and thus encourage a broadening of the discourse on religion in a way that is desperately needed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Francis Stewart is lecturer in the critical religion department at the University of Stirling, Scotland.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gretchen Buggeln holds the Duesenberg Chair in Christianity and the Arts at Valparaiso University, Indiana.

Crispin Paine is honorary lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, UK.

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, New York.


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