Adventures in Religious Materiality

Sarah E. Dees

Adventures in teaching religious materiality, that is. I'm currently leading students through an intensive, three-week (crash) course on religion in museums, which I am teaching at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Tennessee. I’ve used museums in my teaching before in a class focused on religion, race, and ethnicity (and written about it here); the present course focuses specifically on material religion and the relationship between religious studies and museums studies. In addition to introducing students to the ways in which religions were historically represented in public spaces—including fairs, exhibitions, and museums—the purpose of the class is to acquaint students with how contemporary museums display objects of religious significance and to help students understand important conversations surrounding these practices. How have museums acquired their collections? Who decides the value that objects hold? What is the relationship between the academic study of religion and the display of significant objects? What can objects tell us about American religious history?

from my 2014 pilgrimage to the Louvre
In a 2015 essay, critic Jason Farago suggested that museums are the new churches. “These days,” he wrote, “we frequently use religious language when talking about art. We make ‘pilgrimages’ to museums or to landmarks of public art in far-off locales. We experience ‘transcendence’ before major paintings or large-scale installations.” Farago, who focuses on art museums and galleries, suggests that the architecturally impressive venues that house fine art are temples to priceless objects that are set apart from the mundane world and hold value for those who flock to see them. As Farago notes, museums have been driven by missions of social uplift. In addition to serving educational purposes, curators select objects to display based on their aesthetic or functional significance. In addition to considering religious art—with related questions about aesthetics and design—we will also be looking at material religion from historical and anthropological perspectives. The academic study of religion helps to illuminate the shifting and competing ideas about the value and significance of the objects on display.

Like many museums, the McClung Museum's collections are diverse and eclectic. Although the focus of the course extends beyond American religious history, it raises pertinent questions about cultural and religious diversity. This conversation is especially important in Tennessee, where the value of "diversity" is under debate in the public and political realms. Our readings and discussions also address more practical elements of the study of material religion and material history, helping students to better understand museum practices within particular historical and political contexts.

The intensive course format (fifteen three-hour meetings over three weeks) requires us to move quickly through different topics. I have divided the class into three units, enabling us to explore religion and museums in history, theory, and practice. Our course texts include Alexander’s Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, 2nd ed. (Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2008) and S. Brent Plate’s edited volume Key Terms in Material Religion (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). Museums in Motion, a standard text in museum studies courses, offers students a general introduction to the field and profiles different types of museums, including art, history, and natural history and anthropology museums.

I have paired these museum studies readings with related chapters from Plate’s excellent edited volume; we will be reading chapters that offer brief conceptual introductions to aesthetics, masks, ritual, collections, memory, and the sacred. Other readings include Amy Lonetree’s work on decolonizing museums, Edward Linenthal’s history of the memorialization of battle sites, and readings on the repatriation of objects of religious significance and the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

For their final projects, students will be curating digital galleries of objects drawn from the McClung Museum’s collections paired with research essays that offer a narrative or discussion of the objects they have chosen. (In a full-term version of the course, I would aim for a physical exhibition.) We are #blessed to have access to a fantastic teaching museum with diverse exhibitions that represent different types of museums and a staff that is devoted to the museum’s teaching mission.

Stay tuned for updates!

Related Resources

I encourage you to check out the #materialreligion tag for other RiAH posts on this topic. Here are a few additional related resources:

Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief
The Material History of American Religion project
Material Religions blog
Center for the Study of Material & Visual Cultures of Religion at Yale
Religion in Museums blog

Religion Collections at the National Museum of American History
National Museum of the American Indian's Collections
Discussion of Repatriation from the National Museum of the American Indian
Religious Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, Glasgow
Museum of the History of Religion, St. Petersburg
Musée du quai Branly, Paris
Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, St. Louis University
World Religions in Art, Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Do you have more resources to share? Mention them in the comments!


Unknown said…
Hi Sarah. Fun class. I always enjoyed getting my students out in the world and doing non-textual things too. If you haven't already seen it, this is a nice short-ish introductory piece by David Morgan combining material culture and body studies:
Sarah E. Dees said…
Thanks, Adam! This is a great article!

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