Religious Museums, Historical Memory, and Public History

Lauren Turek

Photo by Lindsay Eyink

Now that Fall classes have begun, I am (naturally? neurotically?) thinking ahead to the classes that I'll be teaching in the Spring semester. One of those will be a course on Museums and Society, which I will be designing as an introduction to public history as well as to museum work. Mulling over the topics I want to cover in that class has led me to think not just about my previous training in museum studies, but also about the museums I have visited or worked with over the years—including a number of religious and denominational museums. Some of these, such as the Judah L. Magnes Museum of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, CA, are dedicated to exploring the life, art, and material culture of specific religious groups in the United States and their connections to the larger diaspora. Others, such as the Assemblies of God museum at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center in Springfield, MO are designed primarily with members of their faith in mind. They provide a history of the denomination and their global missionary enterprise while seeking to inculcate a sense of  pride and belonging among fellow believers. Then there are those religious museums and theme parks, such as the much-publicized Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky (as well as the related and still-under construction Ark Encounter), which actually serve as physical spaces that embody, perform, and teach religious doctrine rather than present the history or heritage of a particular religious group.

This has led me to wonder—what would be the most effective and sensitive way to incorporate the study of these religious museums into courses on American religious history or public history?

In the diversity of their missions and presentation practices, these types of museums strike me as fascinating potential case studies for those of us interested in understanding how communities use, create, and present their histories to themselves and the larger community. They also shed light on religion in American history as well as in contemporary politics and civic life. After all, why build a museum? What is it about the museum as a concept that has led religious groups to create these spaces? How do the denominational leaders or founders of these institutions decide on the narrative their museum will present to the public—what they will include in the story and what they will leave out? How do they present religious objects/artifacts, texts, and images? How do they define their mission—is the museum a place to bolster existing beliefs? To win new believers? Or teach non-believers about the history of Jews or Catholics or Sikhs in a specific town, state, or the nation as a whole? What do their mission and the exhibitions they develop tell us about religion in public history?

While I have found a number of articles on how non-religious museums, especially art museums, display religious objects and interpret religious history, I have found much less on the museums that religious groups themselves have created (other than the Creation Museum; around the time it opened, many scholars of museum studies, anthropology, and the like wrote extensively and critically about that museum. These ranged from scholarly considerations, such as theatre arts scholar Jill Stevenson's "Embodying Sacred History: Performing Creationism for Believers," to more popular critiques in the mass media and Christian periodicals, such as Jeffrey Goldberg's "Were There Dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark?" in the Atlantic and Jason Byossee's Christian Century article, "A visit to the Creation Museum: Dinosaurs in the Garden."). Yet denominational and religious museums seem like such rich resources for studying historical memory and representation.

I would welcome hearing about any articles that you've encountered that address these questions or strategies for incorporating these questions/types of museums into classroom teaching. I'd also be interested to hear about your experiences, if any, at these types of museums.


Brent Plate at: August 28, 2015 at 12:31 AM said...

I'm actually in the midst of co-editing a book now on "Religion in Museums" for Bloomsbury. Hoping some of this will be covered therein. I'm co-editing with Crispin Paine, whose "Religious Objects in Museums" (Bloomsbury) is an excellent text on the topic, and one I've used in classes.

You might look through the back issues of Material Religion. We've published a number of pieces on museums over the years, especially in the "Outlook" section. There are "reviews" of the Creation Museum, Noah's Ark museum, the London Missionary Society museum, and many others. We did a special issues on museums and religion in 2010 and 2012.

hope that's of help...

Elesha at: August 28, 2015 at 10:39 AM said...

Lauren, I've used Annalee Ward's article "Faith-Based Theme Parks and Museums" from Quentin Schultze and Robert Woods, eds., Understanding Evangelical Media (IVP Academic, 2008). The article is mostly about the Holy Land Experience, which is more theme park than museum. Both the attraction and the book are for evangelical audiences, so there's a lack of external critique, but the piece offers an insider critique that might speak to your interest in finding "sensitive" ways to address these sites in the classroom. Religious traditions are not monoliths; insider and outsider critiques differ but share some concerns, etc.

I also wonder if work on religious shrines might offer any ideas for sensitive treatment. I'm thinking particularly of Tom Tweed's methodology in Our Lady of the Exile. Good luck!

Lauren Turek at: August 28, 2015 at 11:17 AM said...

Brent and Elesha—thank you for these great suggestions! It's especially helpful to know which articles you've used that have been successful with students. I remember covering some of these themes back when I was getting my museum studies degree, but it has been a while. I'm so glad you both weighed in with information on more recent (and in progress) developments in the field.

mhulseth at: August 28, 2015 at 1:16 PM said...

I love to teach the chapter on Falwell's Creation Museum in Harding's Book of Falwell, but you probably already thought of that. Mainly I'm chiming in to encourage you not to neglect Donna Haraway's famous "Teddy Bear Patriarchy" article.

CB at: August 29, 2015 at 6:00 AM said...

not to wander too far afield, but as a sociologist I have always found Michael Schudson's critique of Haraway to be an important set of reminders and prompts - at least for me the instructor - while teaching culture studies (it is a 1997 piece and culture studies has come a long way, but nonetheless still has value!).

Schudson, Michael. "Cultural Studies and the Social Construction of" Social Construction": Notes on" Teddy Bear Patriarchy." From sociology to cultural studies: New perspectives (1997): 379-98.

my favorite to assign in a religion and museums course is Lawrence Weschler's _Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder_

Jay Green at: August 30, 2015 at 11:02 PM said...

Keep an eye out for Righting America at the Creation Museum: Young Earth Creationism and the Culture Wars, by Susan and Bill Trollinger, forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press. I think it's due out later this year or maybe next.

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