The Smithsonian now has its first religion curator since the 1890s

Source: The Washington Post

By Julie Zauzmer

Peter Manseau was born for this job.

The son of a priest and a nun, Manseau was meant to be a scholar making sense of religion. Now his job, as the Smithsonian’s first curator of religion in more than a century, is to remind Americans of our nation’s religious history, in all its diversity, messiness, import and splendor.

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

The Smithsonian, the nation’s museum, hired Manseau to curate new exhibits on American religious history and to collect important religious objects to add to the museum’s expansive holdings. In this new position, underwritten by a $5 million grant from the nonprofit Lilly Endowment, he’ll lead a five-year series of events and exhibitions. The position was last held by someone in the 1890s, Manseau said.

Manseau eagerly describes the items he will place on display in his first exhibit, on religion in early America, which will open at the National Museum of American History in late June.

A church bell, crafted by Paul Revere. A Bible carefully excised, with a pair of scissors, by Thomas Jefferson, of all the parts about God that he could not believe. Manuscript pages from the Book of Mormon, on display for the first time outside a Mormon institution. The only Muslim instructional text known to have been written in America by an enslaved African man. A Torah scroll damaged during the Revolution, when Hessian soldiers employed by the British stormed a New York City synagogue.

“It’s the first time in generations that we look at religion in a holistic, comprehensive way,” Manseau said about the new exhibit, and he prides himself on the wide range of faiths he’ll be highlighting. “It’s taking a very broad view of religion in America, including and welcoming to all, without any obstacles.”

Then there are the items that require a more creative curatorial leap, objects not as obvious as religious texts and ritual implements that also tell the story of American religion.

A bottle of patent medicine, still half-full of “extract of liverwort,” sold by Shakers in the early 19th century to support their fledgling religious community. Sticks for playing a Native American sport, which originated as a religious ritual before it became the game we know as lacrosse. The compass that Roger Williams used to navigate his way to Rhode Island, the state he founded when he was exiled from Massachusetts for religious heresies.

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