Museums and Religion

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MUSEUMS AND RELIGION . The last generations of the twentieth century saw a huge increase in the number of museums worldwide; one estimate suggests ten thousand in 1950 and ten times that number fifty years later. In the more developed countries of the world they took on a dramatic new importance and public recognition. In many of the new museums the emphasis has been on attracting new visitors and offering them both entertainment and education rather than on scholarship and on their collections. So far, though, most have shown little interest in religion.

The first two great modern museums were perhaps the British Museum in London and the Museé du Louvre in Paris. The first was formed in 1759 from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, who described it as "tending many ways to the manifestation of the glory of God [and] the confutation of atheism and its consequences" (quoted in Altick, 1978, p. 229). The second was formed in 1793 by France's atheist revolutionary government from artworks seized from the church, the king, and the aristocracy. These two traditionsrespect for, and hostility to, religioncontinue in the modern museum, but even stronger is the Enlightenment heritage of indifference to "traditional" faith. One observer commented that "the message of galleries and museums is that religion is a thing of the past, but that if there is anything sacred in society, it is art" (O'Neill, 1996, p. 191).

The Victorian Museum: Scientific Collecting and Public Improvement

As both urbanization and democracy rapidly grew in Europe and North America in the nineteenth century, the museum became an important expression of emerging national and civic identities, aimed at assertion to the world outside and production of loyal and educated citizens within. The later nineteenth-century museum was not only part of what Habermas (1989) called the "bourgeois public sphere," but a "new apparatus for the production of knowledge" (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992); it took on the job of informal public education, aimed sometimes at the proletariat but more often at the middle and upper working classes. In this new seriousness of purpose, museums were frequently in alliance with the churches and often used the language of faith, even of mission, to describe their efforts not only to improve the lot of the poor but to improve society itself. Visitors were encouraged to consider the wonderful works of the Creator, as well as offered opportunities for self-improvement. The most radical efforts were an attempt to help the poor to "see," in John Ruskin's sense that "To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion" (Koven, 1994, p. 25). We should note too the plethora of commercial attractions with a biblical theme (such as panoramas of the Holy Land) Victorian London offered, whose "sacred interest attracted thousands of visitors who were not profane enough to enjoy ordinary sights" (quoted in Altick, 1978, p. 182).

Religion and Science

The British Association for the Advancement of Science met in 1860 in the newly completed University Museum at Oxford. At this meeting took place the famous exchange between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and scientist T. H. Huxley, which ever since has been taken (however unjustly) as a symbol of the clash between religion and the theory of evolution. The issue had been caricatured as a question of whether human beings were descended from apes, and the popular version has it that Wilberforce asked Huxley if he was descended from apes on his grandfather's or grandmother's side. Huxley is supposed to have replied that he would sooner be descended from an ape than from a "divine who employed authority to stifle the truth."

It was appropriate that this famous exchange took place in a museum, for museums in the urbanized West were in the later nineteenth century the forums for public debate on fundamental questions in a way in which, perhaps, they have never been since. While for some Victorian curators "the study of natural science was a kind of religious contemplation, and the scope of the museum's displays was thus enormously important in communicating that religious purpose" (Yanni, 1999, p. 65), a sizable proportion of visitors now probably saw specimens as emblems of evolution rather than as evidence of God's handiwork. This tension remains today; in the late twentieth century one half of all U.S. college students were alleged to believe in creationism, that is, that God created the earth and all that is in it pretty much as it is today, so the caution displayed by the Field Museum in Chicago when they wanted to set up a new gallery devoted to evolution is understandable (Asma, 2001).

Ambiguity and Resolution?

In 1941 the New Yorker published a cartoon by the famous comic artist Charles Addams (Paine, 2000, frontispiece). It depicted a dark-skinned man wearing a suit and tie but also a headband, standing quietly in front of a huge and mysterious statue, holding a goat. One museum guard says to another: "He wants to know if he may make a small sacrifice in front of it." The joke is threefold: firstly, the very idea that a "native person," however respectable, could still have any rights over an object in a museum; secondly, the idea that a once-holy object could continue any longer to retain any of its holiness once it had been transferred to a museum; thirdly, the notion of a goat being sacrificed in a neat and tidy museum. It demonstrates starkly the ambiguity of the sacred object in the profane museum.

Half a century later, in 1990, the Dalai Lama personally consecrated a Tibetan altar, designed and built by a Tibetan trained at a monastery in Sikkim, in the Newark Museum in New Jersey (Gaskell, 2003, p. 149). Those fifty years had seen a radical change in the approach of museums to objects in their care regarded as "sacred" by some. The key to this turnaround of consciousness was the politicaland thence culturaldemands being made by the indigenous peoples of "settler" countries, particularly in North America and Australia. In the United States these demands climaxed in the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which required museums to list, and to return when asked, a wide range of significant cultural objects, as well as human remains. Australia had in part led the way with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act, 1984.

At both a legal and ethical level, debate about the care of sacred objects has been closely bound up with debate about the care of human remains, about the restitution of looted property, andin some countriesabout the treatment of sacred sites. The International Council of Museums' Code of Ethics, adopted in 1986, demanded that material of sacred significance be looked after "in a manner consistent with professional standards and the interests and beliefs of members of the community, ethnic or religious groups from which the objects originated."

Museums have responded in four ways to the realization that a museum object may also be a sacred object. Many museums have decided that secular values must prevail; that the museum must continue to treat it as a specimen, historical document, material evidence in a framework of scientific inquiry that discounts nonscientific or nonaesthetic expla-nations.

The second way is to return the object to those who would treat it as sacred. Glasgow Museum in Scotland returned a Ghost Dance Shirt to the Lakota Sioux, with much support from local opinion in the city. In both North America and Australia objects of religious and other cultural significance have been returned to local museums and "keeping places" run by indigenous communities (Simpson, 1996).

The third way is to retain the object in the museum but to house and treat it in ways that those who see it as sacred would approve. Rotorua Museum in New Zealand offers a bowl of water for purification to visitors to their display of Te Arawa treasures. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington State provides in its Cultural Resources Center a ceremonial room with a fire pit where objects can be "smudged" with burning sweetgrass.

The fourth way of responding is to allow the object to move regularly between the sacred and the secular. In Moscow the Tretyakov Gallery displays the supremely important and powerful Virgin of Vladimir icon in a church attached to the museum, but on three great feast days a year it is removed from its showcase and displayed for veneration; moreover, the patriarch of Moscow has been accorded curatorial status within the museum (Gaskell, 2003, p. 154).

Art Museums

Art museums worldwide are full of religious images, very many of them produced for formal liturgical use, as altarpieces or cult statues, or as the decoration of places of worship or the paraphernalia of a cult; the museums of such countries as Italy and India, with a rich heritage of religious art, are famous for their extensive collections. Yet seldom is the original religious purpose of these objects given much prominence in the museum's presentation: labels will give date, artist, and a brief summary of the iconography but little if any explanation of a work's liturgical function or religious significance.

The same approach is found even where the title of a gallery, "Islamic Art," for example, might lead the visitor to expect some explanation of what it is about Islam that informs the works of art displayed and the role they played in Muslim praxis. In reality, religion here is being used simply as a label for a culture, and it is very seldom that an "Islamic Art" gallery gives much attention even to any liturgical use its exhibits may once have had.

Though many modern artists tackle religious themes or more or less consciously incorporate and express spiritual values in their work, it is seldom that these influence either the design of the overall building in which they are displayed or the museums' public programming. Two exceptional art museums are the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art in St. Louis and the Museum of Biblical Art in New York. Very special is the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, which was opened in 1971 to house a series of fourteen great contemplative abstract paintings by the American artist Mark Rothko, which were designed as a group to create a numinous space. The chapel was intended from the start to be a multifaith center and focus of religious debate.

Human History Museums

There is a constant debate among curators of human history museums: should the exhibits concentrate on presenting the objects the museum holds, or should the objects be used to help tell a story? In other words, which comes first, object or story? The majority of museums worldwide probably say "the object," which is one reason religion too seldom features largely in museums of local history. Even in museums that say "the story," religion appears as a very minor aspect of local history. With some commendable exceptions (Paine, 2000, p. 157), museums seldom try to analyze the role of religion in local society and in popular culture, in the way that the best of them examine the local economy or try to analyze the role of class and gender.

It is particularly disappointing that social history museums, which aim to present the life of their communities, so seldom include the popular religion that always accompanies and underlies official religion. Museums dedicated to the ethnography of non-European societies are in a different situation, not least because their curators are firmly grounded in the academic study of anthropology and because religious paraphernalia have attracted the attention of collectors. As a result, ethnography museums have generally treated indigenous religions with great seriousness, though Museon in The Hague is one of very few that address religion as a worldwide phenomenon.

When a human history museum has collected prominent examples of the material culture of religion for other reasons, it may find itself having to tackle the issue. Skansen, the hugely influential open-air museum established near Stockholm, Sweden, in 1891, received its first church in 1916. Today many open-air museums include places of worship reconstructed or moved from elsewhere, and these are very commonly actually used for worship; one African example is the Ghana National Cultural Centre in Kumasi, Ghana, which includes both a chapel and a traditional Ashante shrine (Duah, 1995, p. 110). By contrast with open-air museums where buildings from elsewhere are reconstructed, "ecomuseums" comprise an alliance of buildings, sites, and object collections still in their original places, and very often these include places of worship. The ecomuseum of Hirano-cho in Japan, founded by the Ryonin Kawaguchi, priest of the Senkouji Buddhist Temple, comprises fifteen different attractions, including a number of active temples and shrines (Davis, 2004, p. 98).

The Temple as Museum

There is no hard-and-fast distinction between museums and historic monuments. Many of these monuments, in countries around the world, are religious, and increasingly they are being subject to the same type of visitor-orientedsometimes even commercialmanagement as conventional museums. Inevitably this gives rise to special problems, especially where the site is still regarded as "sacred" by a local population. Indeed, one can see an increasing convergence between museums and sacred spacesfrom York Minster charging entrance fees to Druids wanting to perform ceremonies at Stonehenge. These issues are interestingly discussed by Shackley (2001).

Larger places of worship tend to amass treasures, sometimes very rich treasures indeed. The huge Venkateswara temple at Tirupati in eastern India, which sees over ten million pilgrims a year, for example, houses a massive number of valuable items. Many traditional treasuries have evolved into modern museums. Thus, the sacristy of the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin at Dubrovnik, Croatia, was designed in 1712 to display the relics of Saint Blaise and 138 other reliquaries; the intention was both to display relics for veneration and also to display precious gold and silverwork in honor of the saint. The display is very like an early museum.

Throughout Catholic Europe there are diocesan museums; in England many cathedrals have "treasuries" to display gold and silver plate from churches in the diocese. In most of these museums, though, the emphasis has now come to be on the "decorative arts" aspects of the objects; statues of saints are arranged by period and artistic school, silverware by makers. Seldom is there much attempt to explain to visitors the religious significance and function of the object. Even at the Antivouniotissa Museum in Corfu the labels tend to explain the icons in this wonderful collection in terms of Byzantine art history rather than as spiritually powerful tools. A notable exception to this pattern is St. Catharine's Convent Museum at Utrecht in the Netherlands. Here the story of religion in the Netherlands is told through its artifacts, from an early ninth-century chalice to late nineteenth-century Catholic and Protestant labor union banners.

The Museum as Temple

The rhetoric that later nineteenth-century museums shared with churches has continued to be used ever since. Throughout the later nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, art museums in particular were called "temples of art," "cathedrals," in which works of art were "enshrined" and some of which became "sacred places of pilgrimage for museum-goers." For some observers museums do not merely share a rhetoric with religious shrines but actually share many of their functions. Art museums, in particular, share with shrines a separateness from the mundane world, an expectation that visitors will adopt a particular receptive frame of mind and a particular pattern of reverent behavior, that they will follow a ceremonial path. Museums are the forums for a ritual associated with rational, scientific thought. (Duncan, 1990, p. 92; 1995, p. 12). The visitor comes awayor is expected to come awaytransformed by communion with immortal spirits of the past, with a sense of being enlightened, spiritually uplifted.

Sometimes museums and shrines converge more literally. Commemorative museums often take on the character of shrines; examples include many Holocaust museums; the Nikko Toshogu Shrine, burial place of Tokugawa Iegasu, the first modern shogun of Japan; and the Tuol Sleng Museum (museum of genocide) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Faith Community Museums

Faith communities, especially minority communities, often create museums to explain their faith and its history to their own community and to others. Many Jain temples, in India and now also elsewhere, have attached "museums" thatthrough a series of dioramasshow historical incidents in, and aspects of, their faith. Jewish museums fall into two distinct categories: those that exhibit the paraphernalia of synagogue or domestic worship and balance art history and religious practice and belief, and those that tell the story of the local Jewish communities. The Jewish Museum in London has two sites: one for the former, one for the latter.

Some faith communities maintain museums dedicated to their founder or leaders; an example is John Knox's House in Edinburgh, dedicated to the sixteenth-century Scottish Protestant leader. In the Buddhist tradition visitors to such museums can gain merit. Wat Tham Khlong Paen, a sacred site near Nong Bua Lamphu in Thailand, was the meditation ground of the late Luang Phu Khao, a highly revered monk. A small museum there exhibits his few personal possessions and a life-size wax figure, and "opens daily to public for merit-making and homage-paying."

World Religion Museums

The German philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto, professor of theology at Philipps-Universität in Marburg, Germany, set up the Religionskundliche Sammlung in 1927, devoted to the academic study of religion as a worldwide phenomenon. Sadly, Otto "felt obliged, like most curators, to present the objects in a 'rational' and 'scientific' manner, with no attempt to evoke the 'feeling for the numinous' which was at the heart of his own great contribution to the study of religion" (O'Neill, 1996, p. 195). In the 1990s the Musée des Religions was opened in Nicolet, Quebec, and the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Art and Life, in Glasgow, Scotland; the motive for both was the encouragement of mutual respect and understanding among mixed populations.

Other museums that seek to address religion on a worldwide basis stem from faith backgrounds but ones that accept that there are many paths to the truth and that an understanding of their different routes will help everyone on the journey. The earliest of these was surely Glencairn Museum at Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, established by the Swedenborgian bishop William Henry Benade in 1879. The Eternal Heritage Museum is part of the Sai Baba Ashram at Puttaparthy, Andhra Pradesh, India, while the Museum of World Religions in Taipei, Taiwan, was founded in 2001 by Buddhist Master Shih Hsin-tao. The Museum of the History of Religion in St. Petersburg, Russia, is a museum whose declared purpose has changed dramatically. In 1932 the Kazan Cathedral was turned by the Soviet state into a Museum of Atheism; after the fall of the Soviet Union the cathedral was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church, and the museum has become the Museum of the History of Religion, housed in a new building.

Museums and Their Publics

Museums today are making a bigger effort than at any time since the mid-nineteenth century to engage with their communities and to attract wider audiences. The fashionable terms are access, social inclusion, and outreach, and if museums seem reluctant to tackle religion in their permanent displays, the situation is improving in their public programming. In Europe and North America, at least, there is a growing number of temporary exhibitions that treat aspects of religion. Somenotably the 2000 Seeing Salvation exhibition at London's National Gallerytake their theme to a new level of serious debate and public response. Education programs, too, regularly tackle religious subjects, sometimes deliberately underpinning the school curriculum but often seeking to address cultural diversity issues.

Museums have adopted a variety of methods of consulting with their publics and encouraging their participation. St. Mungo's Museum in Glasgow uses a "feed-back board" on which visitors are encouraged to pin their comments and remarks; these have been the subject of a fascinating analysis by the French sociologist of religion Patrick Michel (Michel, 1999).

The impact of mass population movement from the later twentieth century has led many Western museums to celebrate diversity of local cultures, including religions, with the aim of promoting a more tolerant society. The museums of cities like Bradford, Leicester, and Liverpool in the United Kingdom have included Islam, Sikhism, andto a lesser extentChinese religions in their local history exhibits and have promoted educational programs and temporary exhibitions to celebrate and interpret immigrant faiths. This approach has its dangers, not least that the "host" majority community will feel alienated, and this may particularly be true where "their" museums pay little attention to what many may still see as "their" faith (Hooper-Greenhill, 1997; Paine, 2000).

Museums and Religious Change

Museums have long had a role in religious change. Nineteenth-century European missionaries frequently sent home items relating to the former religions of their converts; in their new homes these objects took on a new life, often symbolizing the dark Other and feeding racism as much as commitment to mission. Today many of these objects survive in European and North American ethnography museums, like the Royal Museum for Central Africa at Tervuren in Belgium (Wastiau, 2000), or, less often, in museums set up by missionary societies themselves, like the Norwegian Missionary Society's Museum of Mission in Stavanger, Norway. Much more research is needed into the role these religious objects took on in their new homes: to what extent was their "religious" function remembered, or were they regarded simply as "works of art"?

What kind of new material culture was adopted by converts has been even less explored by museums until recently. Fieldwork carried out by the British Museum in the New Guinea Highlands in 1990, presented in a book and an exhibition, contrasted the incorporation of much traditional culture by Wahgi converts to Roman Catholicism, while evangelical converts were urged to make a radical break (O'Hanlon, 1990, p. 35). Nor has much attentionat least in English-language literaturebeen given to change in the perspective of those studying religion. So far there has been little attention given to changes brought to the way religion is interpreted in museums by the collapse of Marxism in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

During the Civil War in Bosnia many museums and many mosques and churches were damaged and destroyed. Often the heritage of the enemy becomes a target for hatred and destruction, and where intercommunal struggle is also religious conflict, museums can seldom escape becoming involved, even if they try hard to remain even-handed and above the frayalthough too often they enthusiastically take sides. Museums, too, are often deeply involved in struggles between religious and secular interests and can be created to assert secular values over religious. The great Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was turned into a mosque in 1453, but in 1932 it was turned into a museum as part of Atatürk's secularization campaign (Tunbridge and Ashworth, 1996). The nearby sultan's palace was also turned into a museum, so that the relics of the Prophet, brought from Cairo in 1517, are now cared for by a secular museum.

Further Perspectives on Museums and Religion

Museums aspire to tell the storystoriesof humankind, to celebrate human creativity, to inspire, to be a forum for public debate, to research every aspect of material culture, and to raise people's awareness of their environment and history. There is scarcely an aspect of human life and endeavor, or of the natural world in which we live, that museums have not at some time or other claimed to explore and reflect upon. Traditionally, museums have been about acquisitions, preservation, and presentation of both the works in their permanent collections and special exhibitions. They have been the centers for explanations and explorations of the ways in which art, in its many forms and varieties, has influenced, shaped, or reflected human history and achievements. The stories of diverse communitiessocial, ethnic, and religioushave been told in museums; individual artists and curators have presented traditional and controversial opinions about religion, politics, and gender through special exhibitions or permanent displays. Globally, museums have become the storage sites for objects once created for religious purposes but now rendered mundane.

As the idea of taste has been transformed from the concept of selection and decision with moral valuing to that of connoisseurship reflective of class and, thereby, economic and social distinctions, there has been a parallel evolution in the idea of the museum from its beginnings in the Enlightenment into the twenty-first century. However, in recent years, the irony has become that as ethically charged issues confront museums each successive dayfrom the question of the repatriation of sacred objects to that of the censorship of displays or exhibitions in response to religiously motivated critiques, as, for example, in the outcries surrounding the exhibitions of Edwina Sandys's sculptures to Andres Serrano's photography to Chris Offili's paintingsmuseums face challenges related to or inspired by religion. As the twenty-first century unfolds, museums will continue to play significant roles in the lives of individuals, communities, and nations; thereby cultural and religious values will continue to impinge upon, to illuminate, and to question each other.

As the role and purpose of the arts, including performance and display, garners more attention from scholars of religion, the museum both as an individual entity and as an institutional repository of religious and sacred art will become a focus for research and a conversation partner. Critical to both museum studies and religious studies, if not to the day-to-day practicality of museums, is the relationship between publicly or privately funded institutions in their displays, presentations, research, and programs for religious and sacred art. The curatorial responsibility in recognizing and privileging the religious history and values of works of art presents a profound responsibility. The questions of distinguishing between religious art and sacred art and the modes of display and preservation accorded to each further requires sensitivity and knowledge of religion not simply as a historical entity but as a living reality. A working partnership between museum professionals and religion scholars will be necessary to face the challenge of maintaining within the museum environment the individual integrity of the two working principles of museums as caretakers of cultural and religious patrimony and of religion as a communicator of social, cultural, or moral values.

See Also

Art and Religion; Iconoclasm; Iconography; Icons; Idolatry; Images; Popular Culture; Visual Culture and Religion.


The growth in their numbers and repute has been reflected in a significant growth in academic interest in museums: their collections, what prompts people to collect and what is going on when they do, their political context, their social function, their history, their educational role and how people learn in museums. As Pearce (1999, p. 1) puts it, "It is incumbent upon the investigator to try to find ways in which, first, the social meanings of individual objects can be unraveled; second, the significance of the museum as a cultural institution can be understood; and third the process through which objects become component parts of collections, and collections themselves acquire collective significance, can be appreciated." A variety of approaches, derived from other disciplines and philosophies, have informed the growth of the modern discipline of museology, and recent scholarship has been increasingly concerned with ways in which museums display culture, construct difference, and produce relations of power. But there has been disappointingly little crossover between such scholarship and the equally lively field of religious studies. O'Neill (1996), Paine (2000), Clavir (2002), and Gaskell (2003) comprise most of the literature in English on museums and religion, while the wider topic of the material culture of religion is admirably introduced by Plate (2002).

Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief is the only journal devoted to the material culture of religion. Published three times a year, it gives close attention to museum issues. Three leading museum journals, which occasionally cover religious matters, are UNESCO's quarterly Museum International, the American Association of Museums' bimonthly Museum News, and the (U.K.) Museums Association's monthly Museums Journal.

Valuable websites on museums in general include the Canadian Heritage Information Network website at, the J. Paul Getty Trust website at, and the International Council of Museums website at At is ICOM's invaluable gateway to museum sites throughout the world; a new museum site is added every day.

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Arnold, Ken. "Birth and Breeding: Politics on Display at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine." In The Politics of Display: Museums, Science, Culture, edited by Sharon MacDonald. London, 1998.

Asma, Stephen T. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. New York, 2001.

Clavir, Miriam. Preserving What Is Valued: Museums, Conservation and First Nations. Vancouver, 2002.

Davis, Peter. "Ecomuseums and the Democratisation of Japanese Museology." International Journal of Heritage Studies 10, no. 1 (March 2004): 93110.

Duah, Francis Boakye. "Community Initiative and National Support at the Ahante Cultural Centre." In Museums and the Community in West Africa, edited by Claude Daniel Ardouin and Emmanuel Arinze. Washington, D.C., 1995.

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Plate, S. Brent, ed. Religion, Art and Visual Culture: A Cross-Cultural Reader. New York, 2002.

Shackley, Myra. Managing Sacred Sites: Service Provision and Visitor Experience. London, 2001.

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Study, David, and Martin Henig. The Gentle Traveller: John Bargrave, Canon of Canterbury, and His Collection. Abingdon, U.K., n.d.

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Yanni, Carla. Nature's Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display. Baltimore, 1999.

Crispin Paine (2005)