Religious History Objects in Museums

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Religious objects abound in museum collections, yet by virtue of their religious origins and sacred status, they present curators and exhibition designers with a number of interpretive challenges. Chief among these is deciding which story or stories a particular object should tell to visitors and how that object should tell it. While it is conventional to describe objects as mute and devoid of agency unless and until a curator, interpreter, or museum educator steps in to "reveal the stories that objects represent," religious history objects offer a potentially dizzying array of meanings and stories from which to choose (Dudley 2012, 11; cf. Knell 2012, 327; Kahn 1995, 325). Religions, as well as religious practices and beliefs, have never been monolithic or static. Even within a specific historical moment and religious community, faith leaders and individual believers have ascribed vastly different emotional, spiritual, and cultural meanings to the same object. Perhaps this helps to explain why, as scholars such as Mark O'Neill and Crispin Paine have lamented, museums so rarely explore "the world of feeling embodied in religious buildings, artefacts and rituals" (O'Neill 1996, 192), or use the religious objects in their collections to tell the histories of popular, rather than "official," religious expressions (Paine 2013, 22, 118).


Gretchen Buggeln, Crispin Paine & S. Brent Plate







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Religion in Museums: Global and Multidisciplinary Perspectives

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