Religions, museums and the experience economy

Museum visitors live in a continuum of consuming – a museum visit, shopping, eating, other tourist attractions. The average time spent in front of a museum object or gallery painting can be just a few seconds. When appointed director of the National Gallery Nicholas Penny said that one of his aims was to get visitors to slow down and look rather than browse. One way of combining objects with holistic context to greater emotional impact is through the immersive museum experience and this is especially true of certain kinds of religious exhibit. In Glasgow for example the Kelvingrove Museum created a chapel context for a Renaissance altarpiece. The Rubin Museum of Himalayan art (RMA) in New York has now prioritised immersive display after initial success. It has created new posts of

“a ‘Chief Experience Officer’ and a ‘Specialist of Himalayan Ideas’ that will focus more closely on enriching the visitor experience at the museum, as well as launching an artist-in-residency programme that will bring creators from the Himalayan region to New York with the aim of strengthening its mission of ’emphasising the relevance of Himalayan art and its ideas in everyday life [and] deepening our relationships with people from the Himalayan region’,  and several ‘semi-permanent and immersive gallery installations’ …The plans for immersive installations are based on the perennial popularity of the Rubin’s Shrine Room, which visitors have identified as ‘the heart and the core’ of the organisation… and where most people spend their time and return to.” [Stoilas 2019]

But there are inevitable tensions within the organisation about this. As one of its curators pointed out,

“[We] needed to communicate that this is not a Buddhist museum or a Tibetan museum, it‘s an art museum…If you have a whole museum devoted to Himalayan art, the devotees will certainly come, but we needed to create a setting that wouldn‘t encourage misinterpretation…the museum has sought to provide an accurate interpretation of the iconography and themes, to emphasize how the long-standing visual conventions evolved, and to see how the artists worked with the imagery….Chinese visitors may interpret the RMA as a religious center or temple instead of an art museum due to the museum‘s emphasis on Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese visitors‘ backgrounds in Chinese Buddhism.” [Liu 2011]

The Rubin Museum’s Shrine Room is a popular destination for visitors. Photo: Filip Wolak, courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

In a BM exhibition in 2011, Treasures of Heaven, devout Christians found ways to make contact with reliquaries and holy objects by sliding Bibles along the outside of the showcase and reciting prayers [Berns 2017: 83-91]. More widely, Constance Classen has explored ‘The Museum of the senses: experiencing art and collections’ in a recent study [Classen 2017] including the medieval kissing of relics, and in the modern world the problem for the devout when physical contact is closed off in the museum. The Freer Sackler in Washington has created a highly popular solution to this problem with an immersive Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room, with flickering candle-like lights and scores of golden Buddha statues and artefacts. Curator Debra Diamond says, ‘Some people came once a week for three months. One staff member came every day, meditating. People wrote a lot of comments that said, “this helped me slow down” …The whole museum helps people slow down but this was a very special space’ [Catlin 2017].  The story behind the Shrine Room’s collector, Alice Kandell is told in Apollo March 2019; as well as the Freer installation she has a second one in her Manhattan apartment. [Kahn 2019]

A museum in an Islamic country such The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar of course will have a prayer room, but there are secular versions of this in other museums such as the meditation room at the Saint George Museum of Art, Utah. The UCLA Fowler Museum acknowledges that, whatever the faith on show in its current exhibition, other faith groups may wish to take advantage of such a ‘sacred’ space in which to meet’ [Reeve 2012; Nooter Roberts 2010: 92-5] Recent remarks by the Director of the V&A Museum opposing the idea of a prayer room there have sparked a debate with for example the Manchester Museum South Asia collective.

The Minneapolis Museum of Art and Culture provides worship spaces for six local congregations of various faiths, with a shrine maintained by the local Buddhist community. Well-being and spirituality often go hand in hand in new programming: Yoga classes are now common in museums in the USA and London. [see also for example Herz 2015] Museum experience is just one stop on the wider spectrum of the experience economy and although the language may jar we should listen to how the business world talks about this:

“Experiences are today’s social currency and capital. We are what we experience, and what we are we want to share with our friends and communities. We’re living in the times of curated memories and for businesses shining bright means providing memorable experiences for our customers…what consumers are willing to pay for in the future are transformational and memorable events… [Moxiefy 2019]

Open-minded, cosmopolitan consumers are opting for more diverse products, such as those originating from other places and cultures that offer an interesting, stimulating experience rather than passive consumption… It is therefore becoming increasingly important for brands to perform at an experiential level as consumers move in that direction and away from the purely material. ..Social media allows consumers to share their experiences.” [Businesswire 2019]

I have explored this partial shift from a text- centred to more experiential approach in museums and galleries, in Museums and Written Communication: Tradition and Innovation.  [Reeve 2018a] New galleries like the BM’s Albukhary Gallery of the Islamic World seem to be balancing the two. It’s not easy. [Apollo 2018; Reeve 2018b]

John Reeve


Apollo. 2018. Rethinking Islamic art at the British Museum. October 2018.

Berns, Steph. 2017. Devotional Baggage.  In Religion in Museums. Edited Gretchen Buggeln, Crispin Paine and S.Brent Plate.   London: Bloomsbury, pp 83 – 91.

Businesswire. 2019. The Global Experience Economy, 2019 – Meeting Demand for Immersive Experiences beyond Material Product Consumption – on Businesswire news, May 27 2019   Available online:—Meeting-Demand (accessed on 28 October 2019).

Catlin, Roger. 2017. New Sackler Buddhist Exhibition Doubles the Immersive Experiences. Available at:   (accessed on 28 October 2019).

Classen, Constance. 2017. The Museum of the senses: experiencing art and collections. London: Bloomsbury.

 Herz, Rebecca 2015 When is art viewing a spiritual activity? On Museum Questions 9 March 2015 Available at:   (accessed on 28 October 2019).  

Kahn, Eve. 2019. Spiritual Home, in Apollo. March 2019.

Liu, Chang Chia. 2011. Engaging Chinese Visitors: A Visitors Study at the Rubin Museum of Art. Unpublished thesis CUNY available at: (accessed on 28 October 2019).     

Moxiefy. 2019. The next big thing: the emergence of the experience economy. Available at: (accessed on 28 October 2019).

Nooter Roberts, Mary. 2010. Tactility and Transcendence: Epistemologies of Touch in African Arts and Spiritualities.  In Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. Edited by David Morgan. London: Routledge, pp. 77–96.

Reeve, John. 2012. A question of faith – the museum as a spiritual or secular space. In: Museums, Equality and Social Justice. Edited by Richard Sandell and Eithne Nightingale. London: Routledge, pp 125 –– 141.

Reeve, John. 2018a. From museum as text to museum as experience. In Museums and Written Communication: Tradition and Innovation. Edited by Ani Avagyan& Nick Winterbotham. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 64-80.

Reeve, John. 2018b. The new Albulkhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World at the British Museum. Material Religion Volume 15, 2019 – Issue 5 Stoilas, Helen. 2019. Rubin Museum restructures, reducing staff, hours and programmes, for ‘long-term sustainability. Art Newspaper 2 October 2019. Available at:  (accessed on 28 October 2019).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s