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  • Exhibiting Religion—Displaying Religious Heritage in a Post-secular Sweden
  • Charlotte Hyltén-Cavallius
    Translated by Rebecka Charan

Freedom of religion is one of several cornerstones of Swedish multicultural society.1 It is a widely held belief in Sweden that religion is no longer important to Swedes in general, and the country is perceived as the most secularized in the world (Thurfjell 2015, 17). At the same time, Sweden is de facto a multi-religious country, not only today but also from a historical perspective. In public debate in Sweden today, issues relating to religion and religious activities have, in many respects, acquired a prominent position. Religion and its material manifestations (buildings, clothing) and practices generate interest, emotions, and irritation. Violence and threats against individuals belonging to religious minorities with visible religious attributes such as the hijab or kippah are increasing (Skog 2006; 2012; Larsson and Stjernholm 2014). When the debate concerns the building of new [End Page 403] mosques or the call to worship at a mosque, the cultural heritage of the church becomes a pawn in the game (e.g., Karlsson and Svanberg 1995e.g., Karlsson and Svanberg 1997). Those in favor of allowing the call to worship compare it with the ringing of church bells before a service (Chaaban 2013; Lönnberg 2012). Those against cite “historisk hävd” (historical tradition) (with reference to long historical roots) and argue that the ringing of church bells, unlike the call to worship, is part of Swedish cultural heritage.2 Thus, religion often becomes an arena where issues are brought to a head relating to nation, identity, and belonging; who is to be regarded as Swedish; and what is to be regarded as a Swedish tradition and part of its cultural heritage. What impact does the picture that religion is not important to Swedes have on cultural heritage practice, on the institutions tasked with managing, developing, researching, and disseminating knowledge about religious cultural heritage?

Museums are social institutions, which, through the choices they make, create, manage, and exhibit society’s memories (Message 2006; Hooper-Greenhill 2007; Aronsson and Elgenius 2015; Macdonald and Rees Leahy 2015). Their work as cultural producers has a great impact on how the officially sanctioned borders between us and them are established, that is, on the results of the central government’s cultural constitution (Aronsson 2012). Museums in Sweden have large collections of religiously connected and religiously loaded objects. This article is about how these are used as sacral and secular artifacts (cf. Paine 2000; 2013). The aim of this article is to highlight how religion and the religious cultural heritage are understood by museum employees and how this materiality is displayed at a selection of recent exhibits at Swedish museums. How is religious cultural heritage defined and what heritage is given scope in Swedish museums? The article is based on interviews, conversations and a survey3 with museum employees, as well as studies of current and past exhibitions dealing with issues and materials connected with the world religions Catholicism, Islam, and Buddhism.4 [End Page 404]

Museums throughout the world contain on display or in storage millions of objects that have had significant religious meaning for their original owners, but that museums focusing on art, archaeology, history, or anthropology for a long time did not classify as religious, but as aesthetic art products, artifacts from an exotic system of faith or of local history (O’Neill 1999, 188). Mark O’Neill means that this reflects, among other things, a fundamental process of modernity within Western culture, including the secularization of Western societies, the creation of museums, and the transition from faith to information and thus to control of what is regarded as knowledge. During the last decades, we have seen a wide range of studies within the wider field of museum studies addressing questions about the decolonization of museums, which includes issues such as the respectful treatment of sacred and ritual objects within museum collections, repatriation of sacred objects and human remains, as well as curatorial choices and dilemmas concerning sacred material (e.g., Drenzel et al. 2016; Gustafsson Reinius 2011; Minucciani 2013; Paine 2013). According to Crispin Paine, “more and more religious objects...


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