Smithsonian Gets First Religion Curator in Over 120 Years

Peter Manseau is the first religion curator of the Smithsonian Institution since the 1890s.

Religion and museums have always had a rough relationship. In the 1930s the USSR established “anti-religion” museums. Decades later artifacts from these anti-religion museums donned a new role as artifacts for the Museum of the History of Religion in St. Petersburg.

The Scottish government established the Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art as a response to the religious/ethnic clashes that wreaked havoc in the country at one point in time. The museum was set up with the objective of creating an understanding among people of various faiths and those with no faith.

Museums have performed as neutral zones, where one could explore the topic of religion through multiple lenses.

The latest museum to offer a similar exploration of religion is the Smithsonian Institution. The museum received a $5 million grant from the Lilly Endowment dedicated to showcasing religion as a core element of American history.

The generous grant has also allowed the museum to hire a curator for religion at the National Museum of American History. The new curator is Peter Manseau. Manseau received his doctorate in religion from Georgetown University and has penned several books including One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History and Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter.

Manseau comes from a religious background as the son of a priest and a nun. He aims to carry out his new role with the objective of reminding Americans about their country’s diverse and rich religious past, while not excluding the messy bits.

“You can’t tell the story of America, without the role of religion in it,” Manseau said.

Manseau will be curating an exhibit at the National Museum of American History on American religious history. To prepare, he is currently spending his time collecting various religious artifacts which will be added to the museum’s holdings.

As curator, Manseau will be conducting a series of exhibitions and events on religion for a period of five years.

Some of the artifacts to be displayed include Thomas Jefferson’s Bible clippings describing God (material Jefferson found hard to accept), parts of the Book of Mormon, a scroll of the Torah damaged in the Revolution, and a church bell made by Paul Revere.

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