National Edition

When religious art is displayed, secular museums may become sacred spaces

By Menachem Wecker

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Jan. 3 2014 9:35 a.m. MST

Museum visitors can also “remake the sacred within a museum,” according to Plate, who has seen Christians and Muslims gaze at relics ― whether a splinter from the True Cross or a hair from the Prophet Muhammad's beard ― in a museum setting and pray before them. Some, like the Walters visitors Vikan mentioned, also kiss the cases within which the relics sit: “They are making it a sacred thing again,” Plate said.

This arrangement ought to suit museums fine, since they want visitors to be awed by great works of art: “The museum might call itself ‘secular,’ but they are engaged in highly sacred work,” Plate said.

Sacred spaces

Gretchen Buggeln, chair in Christianity and the arts at Valparaiso University in Indiana and another panelist at the AAR/SBL conference, began her talk with a quote from architecture critic Paul Goldberger: “We have in our culture conflated the aesthetic and the sacred, which is why … the art museum seems to have replaced the cathedral in our culture.”

She agreed with Plate that irrespective of whether museums are regarded as sacred spaces, visitors often experience them as holy places and have “personal encounters with religious objects, glimpses of the sublime, aesthetic revelations, or even an elevated sense of self-importance.”

The architecture of museums often heightens that sense, according to Buggeln. She cited the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., whose Native American architects sought to suggest natural rock formations and a simulated wetland environment in the building that was connected to Native American spirituality.

A few blocks away, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Hall of Witness, and in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters chapel and its Temple of Dendur further underscore museums’ celebration of the spiritual, she said.

Even modern museum architecture, which has a reputation of being more detached from the spiritual, often uses religious language, according to Buggeln. Included in that category are Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. And museums’ modern propensity to display works that aren’t officially on view in “open storage” suggests abundance, which can have spiritual resonance.

“This is not a department store,” she said. “Although well-lit and organized, the viewer is still distanced from the objects, and the lighting certainly doesn’t suggest Bed Bath & Beyond. I find something sublime about this opulence and excess. In these spaces you see how a museum can treat any object as if it is sacred.”

The reverse is also true, according to Buggeln, who noted that many people have turned their cathedrals into art museums, in a sense.

“Many Westerners now experience religious sites only as tourists seeking authentic expressions of someone else’s belief,” she said. “Sacred tourism is big business. For these tourists, I wonder what the difference is between a museum and a mosque.”

For Vikan, museums ― whether their websites have .edu or .org addresses ― have educational missions that ultimately aren’t tied to the ways the objects are presented, so much as to the value of the objects themselves.

“We try to think that if we do it right ― and I’ve said this three trillion times ― if you’re locked in the museum and you can’t get out, and you don’t speak English or read English, and you can’t read the labels, if you just hung around in the space long enough, you’d figure something out (about the art),” he said.

Educating a public

Crispin Paine, a curator, consultant and honorary lecturer at University College London, has a different perspective. Participating on the same panel, he cited three changes that he said contextualize the conversation about sacred objects in secular museums: an increase in the number of museums worldwide; dramatic global change in religiosity (with some parts of the world seeing religious proliferation and others decline); and the sheer volume of religious objects.

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