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Published: 2022-12-12 Updated: 2022-12-13, 10:26

Can you light a candle in front of a headless baby Jesus?

NEWS The question in the title is the common thread in a new dissertation in Museology at Umeå University. There, Helena Wangefelt Ström, explores the question: what happens when religion ends up in a museum, or when cultural heritage becomes sacred?

Text: Per Melander

As a dramatic conclusion to this work, one could say that sacred cultural heritage and religion in museums can actually be a matter of life and death

Helena Wangefelt Ström says that during the work on the thesis, she has explored historical material in libraries and archives in Rome and Venice and looked further into new uses of religious cultural heritage in and outside the museums. In the thesis, she states that the question of how we categorize and deal with religion is of great importance today, in a context of cultural diversity and global travel.

“We can walk on someone else's sacred ground without knowing it and use religious symbols in a way that is offensive to others without understanding it. The fact that religion becomes cultural heritage does not make it easier to handle – and it can still be alive, even in the museum”, says Helena Wangefelt Ström.

Museology and Cultural heritage studies

The thesis is within the subject of Museology and more specifically within the field of Cultural heritage studies, says Helena Wangefelt Ström, and it aims overall to investigate various methods and tools for moving between the concepts of sacredness and cultural heritage. The research question: "What happens in the transfer between cultural heritage and sacredness?", is investigated in two separate parts.

“Partly the production of sacred cultural heritage in early modern Europe and specifically Sweden, in dealing with its Catholic past, and Rome and Venice, in adapting to a new and non-Catholic audience of tourists”.

“On the one hand, I investigate the use of the sacred as cultural heritage in different times and contexts. For both parts, different types of sources have been used, such as early modern guidebooks, travel journals, historical collections, and contemporary sources in media, design, art, and other contexts”.

A matter of life and death

She further says that the study presents new categories that have been created for sacred cultural heritage and how these adapt to new areas of use. That the thesis presents new models to apply to religious and sacred artifacts that address various religious and non-religious audiences and practices today.

“As a dramatic conclusion to this work, one could say that sacred cultural heritage and religion in museums can actually be a matter of life and death. Because in the thesis I conclude by returning to the recurring question of how we can understand religion in a museum or as cultural heritage: has it ceased to be a living religion, or does it retain its sanctity?”

“And the question is further than that, as several of the uses of sacred cultural heritage presented in the study deal with violence and destruction. The thesis points to the importance of in-depth competence and reflection on religion and cultural heritage, also as an important factor for social sustainability”.

About the dissertation

The dissertation Lighting candles before a headless Jesus: sacred heritage, heritagized sacredness, and the many journeys between categories is available digitally

The defence of the dissertation is taking place Friday December 16 at 1 PM at The Humanities Building, HUM.D.230 

Opponent is Dr. Sabina Brevaglieri, Central institute for catholic theology, Humboldt Universitety in Berlin