The Final Conference for the Research Network “Dynamics of Religious Things in Museums” (REDIM)
Religious Materials: Emic Perspectives – Etic Constructions – Museum Classifications
3rd – 5th June 2021
Religious materials are objects in diverse contexts: religious beliefs and practices; academic research and theories; as well as museum inventories, restorations, and displays. As different as these contexts may seem, they are intimately entangled: Academic research claims to reconstruct religious contexts (emic perspective) from an outsider’s position, to analyse them, and eventually to make them comprehensible to others. In doing so, researchers create a network of terms and concepts, in order to systematically capture emic perspectives, their conditions, and their consequences, in a way that is academically accessible. They thereby create their own interpretation of reality (etic construction). However, research not only takes place in the religious field, but also may refer to religious objects in the museum. Museums, in turn, make reference to both religious contexts and academic research. For example, in determining whether an object is religious and, if so, to which religious tradition it is assigned (museum classifications), museum staff rely both on observation of everyday religious life, as well as on insights and concepts from research. Furthermore, they also reflect on these when exhibiting religious materials. It should be recognised that neither research nor museums are free of individual, socio-politically motivated premises. Religious materials thus always exist in relation to various actors – to those who use them, who research them, who exhibit and view them – and this relation, in turn, results in its own particular dynamics, depending on the context.
With their exhibitions and other offerings, museums have an impact on society. They offer elements of socially interpretative repertoires (Bräunlein 2012, te Heesen/Vöhringer 2014). This also includes religious individuals and groups receiving academic research, and relating to museums and their objects. For some, museums become places of identity and community building – for others, museums are places of injustice. In some cases, looted objects are returned to their countries of origin. Against the background of the latter, the understanding of the function of museums has changed in recent years: While museums in the 19th and 20th centuries were seen primarily as archives and preservers of a so-called cultural heritage (old museology), in new museology they are understood as social, fluid spaces (Cameron 2013, Gonçalves 2019) that are open to processes of negotiation and encounter.
Religious materials, as well as their collection and exhibition, reflect all these dynamics. Nevertheless, it is important to note that religious materials are not simply points of reflection, and thus passive objects. From a religious perspective, materials can be living and active subjects. This emic perspective is increasingly taken into account in academic research, and is partly integrated into its theoretical approaches (Hazard 2013). In the museum, the question arises of how to deal with objects that are, from certain perspectives, real and/or imbued with life. At the very least, museums are faced with the challenge of appropriately presenting this perspective – the living contexts of the objects and the dynamics associated with them – in an apparently static, and often secularly framed, place. This means that museums have to deal with both emic and etic perspectives and demands. The conference focuses on the dynamic entanglement of religious materials.
This online conference sheds light on the process of REDIM research and its results. At the same time, it also provides a platform for current international research on the entanglements between religious artefacts and practices, museum exhibitions and political settings. Additionally, the public is invited to participate in various events. In doing so, REDIM’s final conference creates a space for exchange and critical reflection as well as another starting point for scholarly innovation and public debate on the various social meanings of religious materials.
Since 2018, the interdisciplinary collaborative project “Dynamics of Religious Things in Museums” (REDIM) has examined how religious things are dealt with in the museum, how religions are exhibited in the museum, and how museum presentations influence the perception of religions in society.
Research has been carried out in Frankfurt, Leipzig and Marburg as well as in Iran and Japan. Various institutions have been involved, including the Dommuseum in Frankfurt/Main, the Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde in Leipzig, the Religionskundliche Sammlung (Museum of Religions) and the Zentrum für interdisziplinäre Religionsforschung (ZIR) in Marburg as well as the departments of History of Religion and the Study of Religions at the University of Marburg. An international and interdisciplinary advisory board has supported the project.
REDIM has been funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) within the funding line “The Language of Objects – Material Culture in the Context of Social Developments”.