For the first time since the 1890s, the Smithsonian Institution has a curator for religion.
Peter Manseau, a scholar and writer whose parents were formerly a priest and a nun, was hired to acquire religious objects for the museum and to oversee exhibits on religious life in America.
“You can’t tell the story of America without the role of religion in it,” Manseau told The Washington Post in late October.
Manseau is the author of several books, including One Nation Under Gods: A New American History, a 2015 tome that examines the history of religious pluralism in America. (It was reviewed in the April 2015 issue of Church & State.) He also wrote a memoir about his parents’ unconventional backgrounds, and with Jeff Sharlet, penned a kind of religious road trip book, Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, in 2004.
Manseau said he appreciates multiple faith perspectives and wants those who visit the Smithsonian’s exhibits to understand the role that religion has played in America. He promised an objective approach.
“I would like visitors to feel that no matter what they believe or don’t believe, these stories of religion in the nation’s history are part of their history as Americans,” he said.
Manseau said his first exhibit, on religion in early America, will feature items such as a church bell made by Paul Revere, one of Thomas Jefferson’s edited versions of the Bible, manuscript pages from the Book of Mormon, the only known Muslim text written in America by an enslaved African and a Torah scroll damaged by British mercenaries during the American Revolution. It will also include the compass used by colonial-era religious liberty pioneer Roger Williams after he was expelled from Massachusetts and traveled through the wilderness to found his own colony of Rhode Island.
“It’s the first time in generations that we look at religion in a holistic, comprehensive way,” Manseau said of the exhibit, which will open in June at the National Museum of American History. “It’s taking a very broad view of religion in America, including and welcoming to all, without any obstacles.”
Manseau’s position was made possible by a $5 million grant from the non-profit Lilly Endowment. That grant will cover five years of programming at the Smithsonian.
The Smithsonian, which encompasses several museums based mostly in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall, has had curators for religious artifacts in the past, but the position has not been filled since the 1890s.