Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum
Studying Interactions between Visitors, Objects and Religion in the Museum
This AHRC Collaborative-Doctoral Award project with the British Museum, undertaken by Steph Berns, examined the processes through which visitors experience sacred presences in public museums. Using Actor Network Theory (ANT), the study conceived religious interactions as networks that combine objects, people and divine/supernatural presences. This approach made it possible to re-focus away from the usual objects of museum studies (e.g. curators and visitors) in order to draw attention to the many material and immaterial ‘actors’ that affect such religious encounters.
The project used this approach to study interactions at the British Museum’s exhibitions ’Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe’ (2011) and ‘Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam’ (2012), and the religious groups that visit the Museum’s so-called ‘biblical archaeology’ in its permanent galleries.
The study found that the sacred was evoked in a number of ways in the museum; through embodied interactions with artefacts, as memories, and through engagements with scripture. Actors that had the ability to facilitate and inhibit visitors' religious experiences, included elements often overlooked by museum professionals and within visitor studies (such as overheard comments uttered by strangers and glass display cases). Museum curators and planners were found to have relatively little control over these processes, with their design plans often having unintended or unexpected effects for religious experiences within the museum. The findings also revealed how perceptions of the museum as secular spaces shaped visitor norms and influenced whether the museum became a site of conflict or opportunity for sacred encounters.