Author: Kaell, Hillary
Date published: March 1, 2013
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Book Reviews and Notes
In Faith in Objects , Erin L. Hasinoff takes the reader on a journey from early museum anthropology to Protestant ecumenical organizing to women's sewing circles. In the process, she tells a comprehensive history of the "World in Boston," a 1911 missionary exposition organized by Boston Protestants led by Samuel Capen, former president of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The event, generally forgotten by scholars today, brought together over 10,000 mostly female volunteers from 300 congregations and was designed to showcase artifacts from the field. More than a mere display of African masks or Turkish furniture, however, the exposition was a performative space where life-size recreations of field locations (the Chinese temple or the Indian street) were filled with people: a few "real life" converts, as well as returned missionaries and costumed volunteers. Docents guided visitors through and also bolstered support for missions. At a broader level, the exposition was meant to confirm Christianity's place at the apogee of human spirituality and civilization.
Trained in anthropology and museum studies, Hasinoff also draws on history and material culture studies. As a result perhaps, Faith in Objects contains two distinct narratives: the first examines how Americans understood their relationship to the world through the material culture of missions; the second is an "ethnography of collecting" that explores how artifacts are acquired and displayed in museums. Much of this discussion centers on Franz Boas's efforts to obtain missionary artifacts for the nascent anthropology collection at the American Museum of Natural History (chapters 6-7). It is a welcome addition to the burgeoning historiography on missions in this period, demonstrating their wide-ranging impact even in devotedly "secular" spaces like museum halls (133).
Hasinoff identifies three overarching themes from the outset: religion as sensational form, charity, and lived religion (6). Drawing on anthropologist Birgit Meyer's 2006 work Religious Sensations: Why Media, Aesthetics and Power Matter in the Study of Contemporary Religion (Amsterdam: Faculteit der Sociale Wetenschappen, Vrije Universiteit), Hasinoff's first theme refers to how material objects structure and shape religious experience. One way that Hasinoff explores this theme is through the object lesson, a ubiquitous late-nineteenth century pedagogical tool. She does a great service by expanding the discussion of religious object lessons, which has thus far garnered too little attention (an exception is David Morgan, Protestants and Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Age of American Mass Production, [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999], 201-34). Her second theme comes directly from the source material: World in Boston's primary goal was to promote Christian charity. In the process, organizers struggled with how to compete with popular amusements while ensuring that visitors were moved to religious feeling (85). While this conundrum will sound familiar to historians of U.S. Christianity, Hasinoff offers an interesting twist by incorporating early-twentieth century anthropological (and missionary) literature on the fetish (91-4). The statues of gods ("fetishes") on display at World in Boston were high entertainment and drew crowds. However, organizers feared that these exotic objects could lure viewers into contemplating the "other," distracting them and perhaps even jeopardizing their souls. Organizers coped by situating them as relics of a lost pre-Christian past, handled and described only by costumed volunteers playing unconverted "natives." The few actual foreign converts present were displayed as a testament to missionary success. Refashioned by conversion, they dressed like Westerners, spoke eloquently and demonstrated civilized pursuits like lace making (166-69).
Hasinoff's focus on lived religion was least clear to me. While I expected this would mean full portraits of lay visitors and volunteers, the book centers on negotiations between elites: organizers and their proscriptive literature, missionary organizations and museum curators. The last chapter (171-88) offers the fullest portrait of lay activities. Hasinoff relies again on Birgit Meyer to show how the transcendental is mediated through "sensational form"--in this case the bodily engagements of World in Boston volunteers: handling objects, rehearsing speeches, sewing, and donning costumes in order to self-consciously enact Christian identity. Occasionally Hasinoff also highlights the exposition's critics: a Boston rabbi, Chinese university students, a female visitor. They note the inaccuracy of displays or, in one case, reject the anti-woman rhetoric of a "Buddhist priest" (actually a costumed pastor) (162). These moments add levity and color to the story, as well as an important counterpoint to the proscriptive exposition literature.
At times Faith in Objects feels rough around the edges. The organization is occasionally awkward, and the introductions to a number of the chapters are repetitive. More images would be helpful, particularly since the cover image is also reproduced twice in the text (17, 63). Also, while the epilogue offers a satisfying summation, the recourse to contemporary comparisons seems forced and the inclusion of Durkheim and Turner unnecessary. The reader would need more discussion to be convinced that collective effervescence and communitas are helpful theoretical models here (194).
In a book as full of interesting twists and turns as this one, there are bound to be some missteps. Overall, it is well-researched and methodologically forward. It still takes courage--especially for a young scholar--to produce a truly interdisciplinary book as Erin Hasinoff has done. It is a timely book for this reason but also, for many readers of this journal, because it looks at American missionary activity from an exciting angle: the life of the material objects collected and shipped back home. Missionaries, like anthropologists and museum curators, Hasinoff reminds us, were important cultural brokers. As the possessors of knowledge and things, they shaped the flow of information and mediated how home audiences encountered the world.