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

“These three things mean that it’s in museums that many people encounter religion, and it’s almost exclusively in museums,” he said. Paine joked that TV detective series may be the exception to the rule because great and terrible things always tend to happen around churches with many columns.

“But leaving that aside, I think that it’s really only when they visit museums that a great many people have to think about what this religion business is actually all about,” he said.

Given the role that museums are playing in educating a public that largely does not know much about religion, they need to take religion more seriously, according to Paine.

“We need to stop just automatically and unthinkingly turning a religious object into a museum object and an art object into a historical object,” he said. “We need to ask how can we explain, how can we help the object to speak with its authentic voice, and ... with its former voice to people coming to the museum today who may come from a very different cultural background.”

The “bee in his bonnet,” he said, is the types of narratives that museums present about religion that has everything to do with what established Orthodox leaders say the religion is rather than what it is in practice.

If museum curators emulated anthropologists and conducted their field work in larger religious communities rather than trusting the word of rabbis, imams, priests or other leaders, they would encounter a different sort of religion: “the muddled mixture of activities and behaviors that (religious people) have put together that seek their particular needs.”

That grittier, more authentic portrait of religion as practiced may often mean that paintings, such as El Greco’s “Saint Francis” at the Walters Art Museum, get kissed.

“It’s interesting to see the extent to which increasingly museums, including fine art museums, are beginning to tolerate, or even perhaps to encourage, the veneration of these objects in their displays,” Paine said, although he noted that it is the “more tidy and undemanding” forms of veneration that are encouraged, such as Buddhist chants and adoration of Christian icons.

“I don’t see any blood sacrifices,” he said.

Menachem Wecker is a freelance reporter based in Chicago, a former education reporter at U.S. News & World Report and holds a master's in art history from George Washington University. Email: mwecker@gmail.com. Website: http://menachemwecker.com.

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