Handling Religious Things: The Material and the Social in Museums

By John Reeve

A review of Handling Religious Things: The Material and the Social in Museums Edith Franke and Ramona Jelinek-Menke (eds.) 2022   Georg Olms Verlag Hildesheim · Zürich · New York

We don`t collect objects, we collect relationships.”  [Léontine Meijer-van Mensch]   

This is an often stimulating collection of essays mainly by German curators and academics connected with the Museum of Religions at Philipps-University Marburg, the Museum of Frankfurt Cathedral and the Grassi Museum of Ethnography in Leipzig, who collaborate on REDIM The Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Religion and the Dynamics of Religious Things in Museums.

It is commendably available on open access at https://archiv.ub.uni-marburg.de/es/2020/0004/pdf/9783818505646.pdf Here are some suggestions on where to dip in- it made me realise how little German museology I read even in English.

The most bracing chapter is the last – an interview with Léontine Meijer-van Mensch director of the State Ethnographical Collections of Saxony including in Dresden and the Grassi in Leipzig. She was previously programme director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, deputy director of the Museum of European Cultures at Berlin, and before that taught at the Reinwardt Academie, Amsterdam. She was one of four museum directors all from ethnographic museums recently honoured with the European Museum of the Year Kenneth Hudson award for institutional courage and professional integrity.

She is prepared for quite a lot of restitution and smaller collections as a result: ‘I think museums should be spaces where we document, and that we should not collect as much anymore’.[p219] ‘If we continue the process of restitution, we will still have many objects, but we will have also gained numerous new relationships. Moreover, largescale restitution is not what communities want. They want museums in the global north to tell their stories.’ [p222] She operates with a number of theoretical concepts: museums as places of encounter [Homi Bhabha´s concept of third space beyond home and work,] ‘where we negotiate things, where we gather… It is the old agora.’ [p216.]  She follows Fiona Cameron’s idea of the liquid museum: shape-shifting that is not bound by historic buildings and concepts and particularly not bound by academic specialist knowledge alone. This concept ‘goes beyond the physical structure of the museum…   refers to the museum as space rather than as place. The liquid museum is a network that connects with all kinds of people and communities. It tackles issues that are in conflict, and may also try to give voices to the dissonant.‘ [pp 216-7] Léontine also cites Manuel Castells on the network society and museums, as opposed to top down hierarchies.

She not surprisingly emphasises the shared stewardship of religious objects but has reservations about working just with source communities: ‘The concept of implicated community [Erica Lehrer] goes beyond that of identity, which I don’t think is as valid anymore. I’m not saying that I have rejected the concept of source community, but that it is too narrow, and that it can be instrumentalised and serve as fodder for identity politics.’ [p218] Unlike some British colleagues she is open-minded about museums as both secular and religious spaces:   ‘So, it is a sort of shape shifter; it can adjust its shape according to what it needs to be at a specific moment. I like this idea a lot, but of course, it is at odds with the rules and regulations of German public services.’ [p217]

The editors’ introduction gives a helpful context for current work and warns: ‘the influences emanating from religious things in the museum are neither subject exclusively to the deliberate control of curators and other museum staff, nor do they concern only a non-religious public.’ [p14] I was struck by Marburg’s focus on the diversity of religious cultures, and an explicitly comparative perspective on religion, including exhibitions such as “From Dervish Cap to Mecca-Cola: Diversity of Islamic Faith Practice” (2013) [p26]

In his chapter Peter J. Bräunlein brings together arguments for the agency of objects as ‘Living Things’ in the museum, and how the meaning, character and even form of religious objects change once in a museum, drawing on Appadurai, Kopytof, Gell, Hoskins, Pasztory, Miller and Thomas. The word ‘entangled’ crops up quite a lot in this book!

Elsewhere we hear about Asian temple museums especially in Japan [arguably the world’s oldest surviving museum is at Nara] early mosque libraries and collections as public venues [pp75-9] A Shia mosque museum in Iran has 8,000 objects on display, and receives about one million visitors a year.[P107] Religious collections in the State Museum of the History of Religion, in St Petersburg are introduced. [pp 85-94] I especially enjoyed a Japanese piece about introducing Islam to a Japanese public. I heard when I was there years ago about the impact of a V&A touring exhibition of Islamic art that was the first time most people had seen any at all. Yuriko Yamanaka from the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka thinks that ‘Museums have taken up the agenda of defusing the rising tension between Islamophobia on the one hand and radicalisation of Muslim extremists on the other, by serving as a place of learning, and as a forum for intercultural, interreligious dialogue’.[p183] If only that was more widely the case, at a time when ‘museums in the West are experiencing the third major phase of restructuring their Islamic collection displays’.  There is encouraging news about education outreach in Osaka, however [p.192]

Given the line-up of curatorial and academic contributors it’s perhaps not surprising that we hear so much about intentions and so little about visitors and responses. In Leipzig for example visitors are apparently surprised to hear about Jews in Iraq or Christians in Iran [p 156] The director of the Grassi in Leipzig also takes note of Museums Association commissioned research in the UK on public attitudes: Unfortunately, visitor research has shown again and again that most museum visitors don’t want …   ambiguity; they don’t want this multifocality. They want museum experts telling them how things are and what they are. This is something I constantly feel uncertain about and find frustrating. Lots of museum visitors have a rather old-fashioned idea of what a museum is. This has also been my own personal experience with participatory projects. It’s difficult…’ [p219]

The research she is referring to is: “Public Perceptions of – and Attitude to – the Purpose of Museums in Society: A report Prepared by Britain Thinks for the Museums Association,” March 2013, https://www.museumsassociation.org/app/uploads/2020/06/03042013-britain-thinks.pdf.  That is now 9 years ago- anything more recent that you know of?

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