Peter Manseau discusses the intersection and importance of religion in American history

By Maya Boddie, Baptist Joint Committee intern

Peter Manseau

America’s story cannot be told without mentioning religion, and Peter Manseau has been tasked with telling that story at the Smithsonian. The Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History spoke to the D.C. Chapter of the Religion Communicators Council about how he works to bring religious history to life.

Manseau earned his doctorate in religion from Georgetown University, and is the author of several books, including One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History. He joined the Smithsonian team in 2016.

The museum’s first religion curator since the 1890s, Manseau is implementing innovative exhibit ideas and organizing concerts and theatre programs to expose guests to the many intersections of religion and history.

“The life of an object extends beyond its immediate use,” Manseau said of the many tools on display at the nation’s museum. “[The objects] tell the story of those who created and used them.” With the help of the Smithsonian team, Manseau wants to increase the religious literacy of the nation by exposing the great traditions which tell the stories that have been too long neglected.

Peter Manseau and members of the RCC DC Chapter

At the meeting, Manseau described the pieces he plans to display in his first exhibit, “Religion in Early America.” Items include a church bell created by Paul Revere, a christening robe worn by George Washington for his baptism, and sticks which were used for playing a 19th century Native American sport – originally used as a religious ritual – before it became the game we know today as lacrosse.

Manseau hopes these significant objects will spark dialogue among visitors about the role religion has played in centuries of American history.

“Religion in Early America” will open in late June of 2017 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

 
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