What do we learn about religious communities and traditions by going to a museum? How do museums affect the public understanding of religion? How do objects on display provide a rich venue that enables us to ask questions about culture and identity?
During the fall, Visiting Associate Professor of Religious Studies S. Brent Plate made several presentations on topics relating to these questions. Much of this work stems from his co-edited volume Religion in Museums: Global and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, published earlier this year.
In September, Plate was an invited speaker in a “Religion in Museums” webinar hosted by the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C. He was joined by Eric Williams, curator of religion at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, and Yolanda Pierce, dean of Howard University School of Divinity.
The group discussed such topics as the relations of ritual and museum-going, the constructions of race and culture through museums, and how scholars might more fruitfully work with curators when making exhibitions that exhibit religious life and practice.
The webinar was part of series organized in conjunction with The Public Scholars Project, a joint initiative of the Religious Freedom Center and the American Academy of Religion. Monthly webinars are presented on topics linking the academic study of religion with an issue related to the public.
Plate also visited St. Petersburg, Russia, where he discussed religion and museums at the State Museum of the History of Religion.
In November, at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Boston, Plate organized and presided over a session on “Museums and the Public Understanding of Religion: Sacred Art, History, and Science on Display.”
Curators from the Smithsonian and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, along with scholars working in religious studies, gave presentations based on their own experiences working with museum collections. Stephen Prothero of Boston University responded to the papers.