Awareness of the dynamic roles played by a diversity of spiritual beliefs, practices, and identities is essential to the survival of any open and religiously pluralistic society, and none more so than the United States in the 21st century. As the most significant endeavor of its newly established Center for the Understanding of Religion in American History, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) is now planning a first-of-its-kind exhibition exploring the place of religion in the growth and development of the nation and across the country today. The Gallery will serve as a powerful method of public engagement that will view the Foundation’s Big Questions through a historical lens that underscores their contemporary relevance: Has the fundamental nature of religious experience changed from the past to the present? How have religious ideas both promoted and hindered moral behavior throughout US history? Is there anything unique about America’s religious development or its current reality?
Located on the heavily-trafficked ground level, the 3,500 sq. ft. Gallery will offer a hybrid exhibition, education and programmatic environment in which tens of millions of visitors will explore the range of religious and spiritual expressions that have been shaped by both constitutionally protected religious freedoms and the competition among sects and ideas that those freedoms have fostered. While attentive to the ways the nation has not always lived up to its ideals, the objects, media and stories presented will also highlight how religious traditions and communities have provided models of human flourishing to every generation.
Scheduled to remain open and dynamic for at least 20 years, the new Gallery will make a measurable and sustained impact, improving the public’s understanding of the influence of religion on US history, and broadening appreciation of the benefits of historical engagement with religion as a formative factor of American culture.