Exhibition: Making Sense of Religion

Event time: 
Tuesday, October 4, 2011 - 5:00am to Friday, February 3, 2012 - 12:00pm
Event description: 

Making Sense of Religion in the Yale Archive: Themes and Contexts in American Christianity, Nineteenth Century-Present

Tuesday, 4 October 2011, 9:00 am - Friday, 3 February 2012, 5:00 pm

Sterling Memorial Library Memorabilia Room

Curated by:

Kati Curts, Olivia Hillmer, and Michelle Morgan

Initiative Graduate Affiliates


Religious images, objects, spaces, and performances are constituted by and reflective of a dynamic human sensorium of taste, touch, sound, scent, and sight. Indeed, the sensational human body is the medium through which religious practitioners encounter pleasure and pain, ecstasy and sacrifice. Individuals and groups also work—through and with sensory perceptions—to discipline their own and other bodies in religious ritual, performance, and play. The entangled issues of gender, sexuality, race, technology, nationality, foreignness, and perceptions of progress result in similar sensory encounters with objects eliciting different responses from different audiences.


Making Sense of Religion in the Yale Archive emerged from the intersection of two deceptively simple questions: How do individuals make sense of religion, and how does religion make sense? Engaging the rich diversity of meanings evoked by the word “sense” invites examination of relations among religious sensibilities, sensing and sensual bodies, and sensationalized religious spectacle. The materials exhibited here, drawn from the Yale Manuscripts and Archives collection, the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, the Yale Divinity School Archives, the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, and private collections, provoke questions about scholarly ways of understanding and interrogating sensory cultures of religion. These materials also ask how notions of the sensational form and inform histories of religion, religious actors, and events.


Each of the objects, photographs, texts, and ephemera selected here has its own subjects, each its own ways of evoking sensation. Importantly, from a curatorial perspective, each also has a history of human use. Well before individuals collected and sequestered these things in library shelves, people (possibly including the collectors themselves) created, possessed, and used the objects that fill these cases. Some uses distanced the objects from human touch and sensory engagement, whether or not the object itself invited interaction. Now conservation, glass cases, careful lighting, and spatial distance prevent the hands-on interaction some of these objects originally received. Some items—for better viewing, to protect against fading, or because of an object’s fragility from years of wear—are displayed as reproductions of what is actually archived in the collection. Archival and curatorial practice, while preserving the objects, now restricts sensory circulation of the objects–which nonetheless invite and focus attention and sensation in various ways for various audiences. In addition, the kinds of objects collected by curators are often less rich in sensory data, though they might remind one of or suggest a sensory experience. Objects, such as paper items, or objects about objects, such as drawings of religious implements, lend themselves to simple conservation and storage, but are also less likely to express the sensory qualities so crucial and evocative to religious practice. As you encounter this exhibition, we curators invite you to remain aware of the attention you pay to certain objects, which attract you and which you must work to appreciate, and consider how the ease or difficulty of sensing affects what you learn from or enjoy about each object.