Skip to main content
Kent Academic Repository

Sacred Entanglements: studying interactions between visitors, objects and religion in the museum

Berns, Steph (2015) Sacred Entanglements: studying interactions between visitors, objects and religion in the museum. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent,. (KAR id:50505)

Language: English
Download this file
[thumbnail of 202StephBerns_PhDThesis.pdf]


The study of religious dimensions of visitor experiences in public museums is an under-researched area, partly because of assumptions of the secular nature of the museum space, the dominant assumptions and methods of museum evaluation studies and the relative lack of study of material religion in public spaces not intended to be devotional. This project addresses this by examining the processes through which visitors experience sacred presences in the museum.

This research employed Actor Network Theory (Latour 2004) in order to decentre the more prominent components within visitor studies and evaluations (such as the visitor). Using ANT, this study conceives religious interactions as networks that combine objects, people and divine/supernatural presences, all of which have the capacity to affect the network. This network approach was then used to explore and analyse interactions at two religious-themed exhibitions at the British Museum, and the religious tour groups that visit its permanent galleries.

The study found that the sacred was evoked in a number of ways in the museum; through embodied interactions with artefacts, as memories, and through engagements with scripture. Each encounter had to negotiate an array of actors that were both present and absent within the museum space. These actors, which had the ability to facilitate and inhibit visitors' religious experiences, included elements often overlooked by museum professionals and within visitor studies (such as overheard comments and glass display cases). The findings also revealed how perceptions of the museum as secular shaped visitor norms and thereby influenced whether the museum became a site of conflict or opportunity for sacred encounters. Furthermore, the research demonstrated the limited capacity of museum staff to influence visitors’ interactions as, irrespective of the museum’s intentions, the commingling of certain objects, spaces and visitors can

facilitate experiences of the divine.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Lynch, Gordon
Uncontrolled keywords: museum visitor sacred religion objects
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BL Religion
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of Culture and Languages
Funders: Arts and Humanities Research Council (
Depositing User: Users 1 not found.
Date Deposited: 16 Sep 2015 17:00 UTC
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2022 03:46 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Berns, Steph.

Creator's ORCID:
CReDIT Contributor Roles:
  • Depositors only (login required):

Total unique views for this document in KAR since July 2020. For more details click on the image.