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date: 27 September 2023

Museums and Exhibitions: Overview and Historylocked

Museums and Exhibitions: Overview and Historylocked

  • Maia Wellington GahtanMaia Wellington GahtanDepartment of Architecture and Environmental Design, Kent State University Florence


Much of the art housed in Western museums is religious in nature—the result of how these museum collections were assembled and merged with differing displays over time. The origins of museums and their exhibition activities lie in the vast and myriad collecting histories of ancient, medieval, and Early Modern times, when the avenues of acquisition and display were often intertwined with sacred purposes. As empires, international trade, and missionaries encouraged the movement of people, objects, and ideas, they ensured that the monumental containers meant to preserve and display these collections took on meanings ever more distinct from the original meanings and functions of the individual objects they housed, religious or otherwise. Collections also evolved into “contact zones” between peoples and objects. While the history of display is different from that of museums, because it is premised more on a visiting public than on preservation and study efforts, these approaches to objects merge in the 16th century so that visual comparison and the ordering of displays are seen as a means to develop further knowledge from a collection.

What had been a gradual and eclectic accumulation process was accelerated in the 18th century with a raft of Enlightenment museum projects that identified new political and aesthetic ends for art collections, further decontextualizing objects from their religious and cultural origins and embedding them in more prominent ideological and often aesthetic narratives—what some scholars have referred to as “iconoclasm without destruction.” As more objects became “art” and the concept of art engendered ever more elaborate theorization, the idea of different kinds of visitorship—that an object might be visited for either religious or secular purposes—also took hold. Critics of large Enlightenment museum projects, especially the Louvre, lamented decontextualization on historical grounds, just as the closure of religious institutions left scars in their communities while bolstering attention to the newly formed museum collections. Such events precipitated the spread of the “museum eyes” to which all religious art, even that in situ or in museums associated with religious institutions, was subject.

Recent decades have witnessed museum efforts to recontextualize objects by reclaiming the voices of source communities, identifying shared heritage, and recognizing objects as active interlocutors. Such mediation efforts are meant to restore some of the religious meanings of art while often maintaining secular approaches to museum governance and display. The increasingly broad and nuanced recognition of the intangible dimension of material heritage in general and of religion in particular has enhanced these recontextualization efforts. Ultimately the issues at stake revolve around perceived ownership and the role of the museum in society: Can a secular museum ever fully own a religious object? If not, how can that ownership be effectively shared? Does or should the status of the object and its owner(s) impact its museum audience, which may include a broad swath of society with different backgrounds, beliefs, and expectations?


  • Religion and Art

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