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The Church-Museum: Context and (Dis)connection in Public Religion

Alexandra Antohin explores the museum-ification of churches in Ethiopia, Russia and the U.S. and how exhibitions and tours of religious significance establish active reference points for new forms of public engagement. Antohin draws upon her experience of these sites as well as contextualization theory to explore how religious media are included in the interpretative space of ‘church-museums’. She suggests that in Ethiopia, where tourism is still a new industry, multiple subjectivities and modes of interpretation may emerge through the display and reception of religious media in a public context.


MLA citation format:
Antohin, Alexandra.
“The Church-Museum: Context and (Dis)connection in Public Religion.”
Web blog post. Material Religions. 25 Feb. 2015. Web. [date of access]
This post starts with a moment of gestural and phenomenological confusion encountered in the field in Ethiopia, that quickly became an epistemological jolt. Lalibela is a location that is both museum and living center of devotion. Centuries before UNESCO classified it as heritage site in 1978, this collection of eleven churches, carved out of rock slopes and earth in the thirteenth century, has been regarded as the Second Jerusalem for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, drawing celebrants on Orthodox Christmas, (coincidently the birthday of St Lalibela as well), and Timqet (the feast of Epiphany). On a trip in June 2014, I visited the place outside of its most active period and witnessed how its features as “church” and “museum” collapsed into each other, punctuated by my awkward response to the brief interactions between a tour guide and a relic. To gain permission to enter the church complex, a series of bureaucratic steps were fulfilled after which the door to bete Mariam (Church of St Mary) was opened. Our guide proceeded to provide details about the interior paintings, the engravings and their symbolic import. During his demonstrations, he freely moved objects around, such as the carpets, umbrellas and other ceremonial items that populated the floor of the church. Suddenly, he interrupted his tour script and asked to be excused for a moment and then leaned against a pillar, directed his body towards the meqdes (sanctuary), closed his eyes and began to pray silently. Crossing himself after a few moments, he returned to his tour guide demeanor and ushered us to the next attraction. The tonal shifts that I observed, between treating bete Mariam as a museum and a place of worship, caused a sort of phenomenological confusion for me. The gesture of prayer was a jolting cue to remember the church’s sacred character yet it was this action that appeared out of place, out of time. I realized that what I was missing was the context of the gesture, and in fact, subliminally anticipated a clearer demarcation between the space of museum and church.
Figure 1: An exterior view of bete Mariam with a protective screen ceiling, funded by the European Union and completed in 2008, Lalibela (North Wollo, Ethiopia). Photo by author.

This dilemma of context emerged from a recent development in Ethiopian tourism. While churches have occupied a dominant place in this sector due to their noteworthy antiquity, individual dioceses and parishes have recently begun to construct local exhibition halls attached to their compounds. This prompted me to evaluate how this trend—the simultaneous dynamics of worshipful space and interpretative space—is bound to configure new parameters for how religious media is experienced. Here, I discuss several scenarios in sites across Ethiopia, Russia and the U.S., where the objectification of religion, external to its original intended practice and use (i.e. its liturgical context), has been long underway. I am careful to avoid evoking secular/religious dynamic. While museums typically represent an areligious domain, these spaces likewise maintain their own sacrality in the Euro-American imaginary, with parallel modalities of stillness and reverence. However, I do not pursue this theme here, nor do I aim to address developments in the anthropology of art. To think about “context” as a notion in motion permits the examination of what Dilley (1999) calls “the making of connections. What context does is define where and which connections are made and where disconnections, ruptures and discontinuities begin (1999: 37).” I am primarily concerned about the adjustments made by religious institutions to create new contexts and connections for its traditions. The issue of context will be evoked as a tool used by ethnographers, religious institutions and the visitors and pilgrims to these sites.

Orienting to Religious Media

“Context” has long been a methodological precept for ethnographers of religion. During the novice stage, as fieldworkers learn and build intuition about how to avoid trespassing cultural codes of conduct, many mistakes are performed due to lack of awareness of finer details in the life-world of the cosmology in question. This development of a nascent orientation to anticipate contextual information dates back to ideas posited by Malinowski (1935) on the distinction between “the context of cultural reality”, that is, “the material equipment, the activities, interests, moral and aesthetic values with which the words are correlated” and the “context of situation” or “social context,” the “purpose, aim and direction of the accompanying activities” (Malinowski in Bauman and Briggs 1990: 68). While orienting the new ethnographer, these notions are also subject to the problem of false objectivity, as “communicative contexts are not dictated by the social and physical environment but emerge in negotiations between participants in social interactions (Bauman and Briggs 1990:68).”

For museums, the display of objects of spiritual significance for certain section of the local public has prompted curators and administrators to devise policies sensitive to the fact that such exhibits have direct implications for these communities. The British Museum’s three-part series on religious art (2010-2012) was seminal in its methodological approach and collaborative engagement with Muslim communities in Britain (Frost 2014). In the U.S., certain art museums have adopted protocols that attempt to define the “sacred”, which stemmed from occasions when tribal groups request/require to repatriate or share rights to the use of ceremonial items (Eakin 2006). Moreover, these negotiations also emphasize the potential for religious media entered into new contexts to become objects of interpretation and knowledge production, an uneasy category for Orthodox theological perspective.

In Ethiopia, the activity of visiting museums has been a recent, nation-wide phenomenon, only starting in earnest about forty years ago. In each region, there are municipal museums that are underfunded, under-serviced and generally do not draw many visitors apart from education tours for schools and universities. These museums often display outdated exhibits, focused particularly on agrarian technological innovations that aligned with the ideological objectives of the previous Marxist-Leninist government (1974-1991). Instead, the depository of national treasures, material wealth, historical documents and memorabilia, have been the Orthodox churches. These items are stored in the cellars or adjacent storage houses and opened for special guests or tourists. The chance to view these items is primarily on annual feast days, and by “view”, I mean venerate (no touching, inspection, handling).


Figure 2: Antique vestments and ceremonial items in display cases of a storage house, in the compound of the church of St. Michael in Tenta (South Wollo). In 2012, plans were in place to fully convert this collection into a museum. Photo by author.

To underscore how these objects maintain their “context” in the Orthodox Church by means of their performance, it is necessary to consider how Orthodox Christians approach the visual image. In response to the iconoclasm that swept through Byzantium from the eight century onwards, the Orthodox Church canonically developed a more pointed doctrine of the veneration of images. In their survey of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the language used by Wondmagnenu and Motovu (1970) reflects this character in Orthodox theology:

The Orthodox venerate flat, two-dimensional icons; they do not pray to three dimensional statues because these representations may be too realistic and may become in themselves idols of veneration…The image of the person venerated is honoured only as a means for directing and increasing our homage and veneration towards that person and through him to God by whose grace he became what he was. We do not adore the figure of the sacred cross. Offerings of incense and light are given to the figure of the cross, to the holy books of the gospels, and to other sacred objects in order to do them an honour which passes to the person represented. (1970:91)

The English terminology that is used interchangeably, between images and icons, in fact has one word in Amharic, se’el, which connotes both earthly and sacred art. Despite the fact that canonical vocabulary has not been developed, at least for mainstream discourse, the emphasis on sacred objects that ‘pass honor to the person represented’ is a consistent feature of an Orthodox approach to visual and material culture within contemporary regimes of practice.

In recent years, certain components of the material culture of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians have entered a new format of presentation, the Ethiopian Orthodox church museum. This trend has achieved important practical aims for parishes and dioceses. Such as to ensure sustainable revenues, expand their local infrastructures, and exercise the mobilization of supporters thorough massive fundraising campaigns. Furthermore, the installation of church museums has resulted in a revised ethic of preservation. Speaking to an insider to the church’s tourism and heritage management division, the decision to have church relics and ceremonial objects out in the open has exposed the church administration to greater accountability, a marked change from the precedent of keeping all valuables under lock and key. In essence, to put these items behind glass cabinets afforded them rights as part of a public archive that can guard against their disappearance (i.e. sale on the black market).

As ‘museumification’ of churches and the entrance of religious institutions into tourism is a relatively new development for Ethiopian Orthodox Christian communities, my ideas regarding what new orientations to religious art and aesthetics will emerge is limited to speculation at the moment. What the discursive vocabulary of context and contextualization has sharpened is the ability of parameters of a problem or phenomenon to be transformed. This is what Ardener calls an “epistemological implosion” wherein “that which provided the ‘shell’ or context collapses, so that now the context becomes the new problem and the old problem or contents becomes the new ‘shell’ or context (Dilley 1999: 8).”I evoke this idea to propose that how religious media is included in the interpretative space of museums has facilitated key standpoints of self-knowledge.

Multiplicity of Contexts

For residents of Magadan, Russia who reflected on the cultural shifts that permitted public expressions of religious identity since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Antohin 2008), the role of the museum appeared as a dominant placeholder for marking personal changes against broader political developments. During the Soviet era, churches that were spared destruction were converted into museums and as such served as the principal frame for coming into contact with religious art. For one parishioner, the marked way in which she now came to “look at” icons, no longer as if she was in a museum or on holidays as she phrased it, was an indication of her changing relationship with the Orthodox faith. In a contrary perspective, the Museum of Religion and Atheism in St. Petersburg (nowadays with the atheism removed from the title) was lauded by a high school teacher as a formative part of her appreciation of world religions, as an educational experience and her areligious identity. Both engagements show how these (dis)connections of religious media are not only about context-framing but also subject-shaping, what Humphrey (2006) proposes as an event-centric view of the person. Here, particular moments are openings for a “radically different composition of the self, a switch that has a lasting effect and involves the most significant—but not all—ways in which the person conceives of her or himself (2006: 371).”

Figure 3: The Museum of History of Religion in 2007 (St Petersburg, Russia). Photo by author.


I reflect back to my reaction to the Lalibela tour guide as an “epistemological implosion” for re-interpreting the sacred character of the church. It serves as another reminder of the occasional analytical crutch of context, as something “in our heads, and not out there (Keesing in Dilley 1999: 26).” Ethnographically speaking, however, this superficial demarcation can produce tangible indications of the issues examined here, the culturally-contingent frames of representation and multiple subjectivities that emerge in domains of public religion.

I end by referring to a scenario of contextualization of religious media at St. Thomas Episcopalian Church in New York City, where my attention to the context of the prayerful gesture appears in new configurations. On this day, I observed operations common to most landmark churches: a gift shop, self-guided tour maps, a donation box for the maintenance fund, and a church as gallery of collection of religious imagery. What was most fascinating to observe was the tension of multiple contexts at play. To the left side of the nave, the congregational section of the church, a section of the pews were set apart by red cordon with a note advising guests to reduce noise when services where in progress. Several visitors turned their attention to the two ministers delivering Scriptural readings to approximately twenty celebrants, putting down their shopping bags to take photos of the service. In an immediate way, the ritual and its participants became part of the ecology, as much as the churches’ architectural features, its images, its lectern.

Bauman and Briggs (1990) describe these processes of contextualization as containing rich potential “to recognize the sophisticated way that performers and audiences use poetic patterning in interpreting the structure and significance of their own discourse” as well as an opportunity to build “awareness of the dynamics of performance in the ethnographic encounter itself (Bauman and Briggs 1990: 70).” As tourism in Ethiopia continues to increase and formulate new formats of presentation, this interplay between performers and audiences is subject to expansion, thereby influencing the ways that religious media is communicated, performed and interpreted.

References Cited

  • Antohin, A. 2008. “Challenges of Being Orthodox in Russia: Education as Missionization in Magadan”. M.A., Fairbanks: University of Alaska Fairbanks.
  • Bauman, R & C. Briggs.1990. “Poetics and Performance as Critical Perspectives on Language and Social Life.” Annual Review of Anthropology 19: 59-88.
  • Dilley, R. 1999. “Introduction: The Problem of Context”. In R. Dilley, ed., The Problem Of Context: Perspectives From Social Anthropology And Elsewhere, London: Berghahn Books.
  • Eakin, H. 2006. “Museums Establish Guidelines For Treatment Of Sacred Objects”. New York Times.
  • Frost, S. 2014. “Spiritual Journeys: Exhibiting Religion At The British Museum”. In Interpret Europe Conference Proceedings 2011-2013, 28-37. Waldkirch, Germany: European Association for Heritage Interpretation. http://www.interpret…/IE_Proceedings2011-2013.pdf
  • Humphrey, C. 2008. “Reassembling Individuals Subjects: Events and Decisions in Troubled Times.” Anthropological Theory 8(4): 357-380.
  • Malinowski, B. 1935. Coral Gardens and Their Magic, London: Allen & Unwin.
  • Wondmagegnehu, Aymro, and Joachim Motovu. 1970. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Addis Ababa: Ethiopian Orthodox Mission.

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