Glencairn Leads the Way! Religion in Museums

Glencairn Museum News | Number 1, 2014


Crispin Paine with a Nativity tree ornament at the National Christmas Center and Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.


Figure 1: William Henry Benade and John Pitcairn near the Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem, 1878.


The Academy of the New Church, a Swedenborgian educational institution, founded what seems to have been the first ever museum of religion—at least museum in the modern sense. The museum of religion in Glencairn traces its origins to 1878, when leading New Church members John Pitcairn and William Benade set out on their Middle East and European travels, from which they were to return with a collection of artifacts for the Academy’s museum. This museum ultimately became Glencairn Museum (over one hundred years later).

Museums of World Religion

Of course, there had been plenty of museums before then that concerned themselves with religion. The British Museum, for example, was largely founded by Queen Anne's doctor Sir Hans Sloane. He described his collection as “tending many ways to the manifestation of the glory of God [and] the confutation of atheism and its consequences.” And of course plenty of museums tackle aspects of religion—anthropology museums, archaeology museums, and many history museums. There are lots of museums, too, that are set up to promote a particular religion or a particular religious institution—everything from the Muslim Museum in Mecca to the Museum of Methodism in London.


Figure 2: Bust of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) in the British Library.


But there are still only a handful of museums in the world that address religion as a worldwide phenomenon of humankind.

The year after Pitcairn and Benade got home, a French industrialist set up the second museum of religion in Lyon, France. A few years later—1883—it moved to Paris and the famous spy (or was she?) Mata Hari danced there. Today the Musée Guimet is a much-respected museum of oriental art.

Most museums of religion have been founded in the past thirty years or so. The Musée des Religions du Monde at Nicolet in Quebec Province in Canada opened its doors in 1986. It had two origins. Firstly, the after-effects of the Second Vatican Council were causing many people to worry that Catholic churches were being stripped of many of their Victorian furnishings and fittings. A major motive for setting up the museum was to rescue at least a representative sample of the treasures being ejected from parish churches and closed convents. Today the museum not only collects, but also records church interiors throughout Quebec. A second strong reason for creating the museum was to promote understanding between faith traditions, so they are building up important collections from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, as well as Christianity.


Figure 3: Gallery of Religious Art, St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, Glasgow.


In Scotland is the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, which was also created to promote mutual understanding between different faiths—especially those of the various communities in the great multi-faith, multi-ethnic city of Glasgow. Mark O'Neil, who set up the museum, said, “St. Mungo's is not an objective museum. It exists explicitly to promote a set of values: respect for the diversity of human beliefs.”


Figure 4: Gallery of Religous Life, St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, Glasgow.


This of course challenges those who see their own faith as the only “true” one. In fact one visitor to St. Mungo's commented, “Interesting. Unfortunately all religions are not the same and all cannot be right. What we think about what is right is at the end of the day an irrelevance. It is what God thinks that counts and he thinks there is only one way to get to him.” And O'Neill replied, “this is the single most important challenge in the idea of a museum of world religions and why their interfaith, social-cohesion role is difficult if not self-contradictory. Multi-faith museums by definition reject any individual religion's claim to exclusive truth.”

Like Glencairn, though, most museums of religion come from faith traditions that are not exclusive, but recognize other faiths too as ways to God. Thus two of the biggest of the world’s museums of religion are Chaitanya Jyoti at the Sai Baba ashram at Puttaparthi in India, and the Museum of World Religions in Taipei, Taiwan. They were set up in 2000 and 2001 respectively, the former by the well-known Hindu guru Sai Baba himself, the latter by the Venerable Dharma Master Hsin Tao. He explained:

“How can I transform the power of religions into the directions of loving peace? Particularly today as we face the issues of global warming and all sorts of global crises, how can we religious communities help save our world and help peace to prevail around the world? We can achieve this when different religions are working in the same direction and concentrating on peace-work. . . This is my personal path. I have also established a Museum of World Religions with the mission to promote respect, tolerance and love for peace among religious communities. Through this work we want to serve as a bridge among different religions.”


Figure 5: Orthodoxy Section of the Museum of the History of Religion, St Petersburg.


Among the handful of museums devoted to world religions, I know of only two that don’t come from a “faith” background at all. One is the Religionskundliche Sammlung at Marburg in Germany, founded in 1927 by the great scholar of religion Rudolf Otto, whose seminal book, Das Heilige—The Holy—made a major contribution to our understanding of what it means for someone or something to be “holy” (even if we don't completely agree with his explanation). Though he had been planning his museum since he was a young man, Otto was 58 before he eventually managed to found it—an example to all impatient curators!

The other one is perhaps the most remarkable of all the museums of religion. The State Museum of the History of Religion in Leningrad/St. Petersburg was founded by the noted ethnographer and friend of Lenin, “Tan” Bogoraz, as the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. It had three aims:

  • to promote atheism,
  • to advance both scholarly and popular understanding of religion, from a Marxist perspective,
  • to preserve religious treasures expelled from churches and elsewhere.

This was no crude propaganda-effort, but a scholarly as well as lively institution that built up impressive collections through serious fieldwork. Its academic publications balanced its very-active service to young people. After the end of the Soviet Union it dropped the “atheism” from its title, and today it is a highly-respected museum of the history of religion, with large and valuable collections, attractive displays and a still-lively education and outreach program. Its atheist collections are mostly in storage.

Faith Museums

If there are only a handful of museums of world religion, there must be thousands of faith museums around the world—that is, museums set up by religious groups to explain or to promote their own faith. Such museums could scarcely be more varied; they range from a collection of curios in a dusty showcase at the back of a church, to the Vatican museums, and are promoted by every imaginable faith tradition.

Some of these faith museums are set up not so much to persuade their visitors, but to preserve church or temple treasures for present and future public enjoyment. The first mention of the “treasury of the LORD” occurs in Joshua 6:19 where all the silver and gold vessels are consecrated to a “storehouse” which travelled with the Tabernacle. Later this was made permanent in the First Temple, until it was pillaged by Nebuchadnezzar’s army. Many places of worship retain important treasuries today. The treasury of St. Mark’s in Venice, Italy, for example, is just like a very high-quality museum, displaying astonishing medieval treasures.

Some of the treasures of the fabulously wealthy Tirumala temple in Tamil Nadu, India, have recently been put on public display; the temple itself receives around 75,000 visitors every day. (Recently, though, Tirumala’s reputation as the richest temple in India has been challenged by the discovery of an immense treasure beneath the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum, Kerala. The Supreme Court of India has ordered that some of this be put on display in a museum.)

This is a valuable reminder that one of the many roots from which museums have sprung was pilgrimage, and visitors and pilgrims not only share many experiences but often share goals. In India, too, different faith communities are setting up “religious theme-parks,” like those pioneered largely by Evangelical Christians in the USA. Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs and Jains are all promoting visitor attractions that combine places of worship with museum-style galleries. Often they use highly-sophisticated audio-visual and animatronic techniques. In the Akshardham complex in Delhi, for example, visitors can experience a boat-trip through Hindu history, passing through dioramas of life in an ideal India from Vedic times to the present day.

But most museums-cum-shrines are not on anything like this scale. In New Haven, Connecticut, for example, the Knights of Columbus have opened a smart new museum. This US Catholic men’s guild was founded there by Father Michael McGivney in 1882, originally as a mutual-aid society for poor Catholic immigrants. One of the museum’s galleries contains the original burial vestments and other artifacts recovered when the founder’s body was re-interred in 1982. It’s no surprise to learn that the Knights are campaigning to have Fr. McGivney made a saint. A very different shrine/museum is the set of rooms devoted to the Relics of the Prophet in Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey, in what is otherwise a secular museum. The tensions surrounding different understandings of these powerful objects are of course the more acute because of the political and ideological tensions within Turkish society between secularism and some forms of Islam.


Figure 6: Relics of the Prophet Mohammed in the Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul.


The Relics of the Prophet were seized by the Ottoman Sultan Selim I when he captured Cairo in 1517, and were installed in a special building in his palace complex in Istanbul. They remained closed to the public until 1962, even though most of the palace had been open to the public as a museum since 1924. The recent redisplay of the collection has made a major concession to their status as relics. While the greater part of the display is an ordinary secular museum, the last gallery has a continuous twenty-four-hours-a-day seven-days-a-week live recitation of the Qur’an. During opening hours this takes place in a special final room, with screens giving translations of the Arabic in Turkish and English; when visitors are absent it takes place, unamplified, beside the relics.

Here the shrine-cum-museum is offering two quite separate services: the shrine to devotees, the museum to tourists, and these two distinct audiences understand the relics in quite distinct ways.

Religion in Secular Museums

But the great majority of the world’s museums are of course secular. They are art museums, archaeology museums, history museums, nature museums, geology museums, museums of curios, museums of almost everything one could imagine! Yet there can be few of these that don’t touch on religion in some way. The idea that museums are the temples of our time is very common, and the art historian Carol Duncan has pointed out that many of the great art museums of the world are not merely modelled on classical temples—all columns and pediments—but are deliberately designed as stage sets for a ritual in which the visitor is a principal performer. The visitor follows a set route, behaves in a particular way, largely keeps silence, and pauses to venerate a succession of shrines. Having made his or her pilgrimage, the visitor receives in return edification.

And the collections of most art and human-history museums include a high proportion of objects that were originally created for religious purposes. Most art museums hold a great many paintings that not only present religious subjects, but were often painted as the background to an altar, or as the focus for meditation.


Figure 7: Book cover for Religious Objects in Museums: Private Lives and Public Duties.


Too often, though, museums don’t let the religious role and significance of their objects show. They treat them as art, or history, or sometimes science, and their fascinating back-story is suppressed. It was because I got so interested in the way museums change the meaning of the objects they acquire that last year I published Religious Objects in Museums: Private Lives and Public Duties. In this short book I try to uncover the various different roles religious objects can take on when they come into a museum.

I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with this—simply that it would be valuable for museums also to help visitors understand their religious meanings—as Glencairn Museum does.

Photos by Ed Gyllenhaal, Crispin Paine, and Wendy Shaw. The photo of Sir Hans Sloane is courtesy of Mike Peel.

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