|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?