Though less than 20 percent of the American population currently attends church on a weekly basis, according to the recently produced documentary “When God Left the Building,” interest in both spirituality and religious heritage, whether familial, ethnic or otherwise, is gaining among the American populace.
The numerous museum exhibits popping up from coast to coast that pay tribute to various religious traditions support this trend. Some of these are galleries displaying the works of creatives connecting to the unknown through artistic media. Others are preservations of important spiritual movements that have shaped not only individuals’ faith, but also the trajectory of American history. The following museums and historical sites serve as places where groups can go today to connect with their spiritual past and discuss the questions of their spiritual present while learning history along the way.
Jewish Museum of Florida
Miami Beach, Florida
Located in one of the southernmost cities of the United States, the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach is worth a visit for its Jewish Food Walking Tour, among other interesting exhibits. Held twice a month, the journey takes visitors through some of South Beach’s most iconic Jewish-owned restaurants.
Few people realize that in addition to New York City, Miami Beach was once home to one of the largest populations of Jews in the United States, with over 80 percent of the resort town’s populations claiming Jewish ethnic heritage during the 20th century.
“Beyond just the Jewish culture, the museum is historically very interesting. The Jewish history in Miami is in many ways the history of Miami,” said Eva Shevdovh, the museum’s sales manager and director of group tours and admissions. “People of many faiths come to visit because they are interested in the history. Or they come for the food tour.”
The museum has a permanent collection of artifacts, such as artworks depicting the Sabbath, relics of the Jewish immigration to south Florida and items recovered from synagogues around the world.
Group visits and private tours can be booked upon request. Rotating exhibits are also curated by the museum. The next special exhibit, opening December 3, will be one of the most exclusive the museum has ever had: the Jewish manuscripts recently discovered in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi intelligence headquarters.
“We are one of only four stops in the entire nation that is receiving this exhibit before it goes back to Iraq,” said Shevdovh.
Museum of Contemporary Religious Art
Many people assume that religious art became a relic of the past with the end of the Renaissance. While the days of Michelangelo and da Vinci may be long gone, many artists from the 20th century through the present day still fixate on religious subject matter for their masterpieces.
Many of these modern works are housed in the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA) in St. Louis, a museum that claims to be the first of its kind, due to its dedication to interfaith traditions and reconciliation between differing spiritual beliefs.
“As far as we know, no other museum existed in the world at the time of the museum’s founding in 1993,” said David Brinker, assistant director of MOCRA. “We wanted to create a place where it was safe to examine spiritual topics, where people could deal with questions: How do you deal with life? How do you deal with death?”
MOCRA has permanent exhibits available to be viewed by the public year-round and swaps out collections on a rotating basis. Throughout the years, the museum has seen exhibits paying tribute to AIDS sufferers, minimalist geometric representations of sanctuaries, Eastern faith silk screens and even Andy Warhol’s “Silver Clouds” installation, the museum’s most popular exhibit ever.
Brinker also notes that the museum building itself is a work of art: It used to be a chapel, and the hollowed-out insides provide a perfect backdrop for the spiritual creations on its walls.
The museum’s newest exhibit, which opens September 13, features the work of Salma Arastu, a calligraphy artist who draws on her Hindu and Muslim background to create large canvases of color that feel like softened versions of Arabic graffiti.
Admission to MOCRA is free, and the museum is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.