How and why do we creatively make use of the past to forge new identities in the present? What is at stake in the "musealization" of religion?
Heritage and Religion is a unique interdisciplinary MA-track focusing on a major trend at the interface of religion, identity, politics, and heritage studies. It also addresses a gap in critical heritage studies, studying the shifting place of religion in heritage debates.
In the coming years, 30-80% of religious buildings will lose
their original function in the Netherlands. National and European
budgets are dedicating millions of euros to the development of
plans to address vacant religious heritage buildings. Tourism and
pilgrimage to religious objects, sites, and festivals are booming,
which raises questions about sustainability and impact.
At the same time, heritage has become a significant subject in contemporary cultural debate. Large-scale migration and secularization are changing the religious identities of communities and the way they perceive the past. The demands of preservation of at risk material and intangible heritage in the face of war, displacement, population shifts, and climate change are great. How are preservation concerns balanced with local resources? This track challenges you to analyse and contribute your own voice to these debates.
Surprised by the breadth and the depth of knowledge of the professors
I studied Liberal Arts and Sciences for my bachelor's degree here in Groningen, where I majored in Health and Life Sciences. During my third year, my exchange to the US got canceled because of COVID, so I took the UG Art and Religion minor. I have always liked going to museums and looking at paintings, so I thought it would be fun to take this minor.
After completing the minor, I realized I liked the content more than the things I had learned during my science bachelor's degree. Moreover, after doing some courses which involved lab work, I realized that going down the scientific path was not for me. Hence, for my masters, I decided to switch disciplines.
I was constantly surprised by the breadth and the depth of knowledge of the professors, even in areas where they are supposedly not an expert in. The teachers also made extra effort to make the assignments interesting and to incorporate skills that we could use in the future if we were to work in the heritage field. They always taught interesting subjects and made the assignments fun and they tried to apply them to real life situations. I also liked the obligatory internship as it forces you to reach out and approach professionals in the field.
I completed my internship at Stichting Oude Groninger Kerken (Old Churches in Groningen Foundation). I did preliminary research for an art project related to the Abrahamic Faiths, with a focus on three locations: Cordoba, Sicily, and Thessaloniki. All three places had a past history where Christians, Muslims and Jews coexisted together. The current plan is to sponsor artists to stay in these three locations, to live and interact with people of the three faiths in the local area and at the end create art pieces that will tour around Europe, spreading the message of religious tolerance. My research was to create a report which summarizes the field of the study of Abrahamic faiths, the history of the three locations when the people of the three faiths coexisted, and to make initial contact with professionals or locals who would be involved in the local Abrahamic scenery. The project is currently moving to the next phase and I am still involved in it.
By visiting museums and conferences, we as students were encouraged to engage with professionals from both academic and non-academic disciplines.
After I finished a placement at a museum, I was certain of my choice to follow the Master's degree programme track in Heritage and Religion. I greatly valued the emphasis on forming a strong theoretical foundation on the one hand, while simultaneously putting acquired knowledge into practice during excursions and seminars on the other. By visiting museums and conferences, we as students were encouraged to engage with professionals from both academic and non-academic disciplines.
This, along with various relevant guest lectures, significantly contributed to the broadening of my career prospects.
For my Master’s thesis, I conducted field research on exhibitions of human remains in museums. More specifically, this was a comparative study of the ethical aspects surrounding such exhibitions in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. What does the law say about displaying human remains in the Netherlands? And how does that differ compared to regulations in the United Kingdom? As well as holding in-depth interviews with museum curators, I observed how human remains were displayed. What I found was that the United Kingdom has a more strict and extensive policy regarding these type of exhibitions, whereas the Dutch law seems significantly less comprehensive on this topic. In my conclusion, I wrote a piece of advice on how the Netherlands could implement a more expansive policy. My supervisors were very enthusiastic and at the moment, we are looking for ways to bring my thesis to the attention of policymakers.
Finally, what I loved during both my Bachelor’s and my Master’s degree was the atmosphere at our beautiful faculty. The fact that it’s a small faculty contributes to a positive study experience as a whole, as both staff and students are very dedicated to their course units and to one another!
Discover new ways of approaching religious built heritage
I am a master's student of Art History at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). I have just started the third semester of this programme. During the previous one, I had the opportunity to do an academic exchange at the University of Groningen (UG), in the Netherlands. At the UG, I enrolled myself in the Faculty of Theology and Religious studies, where I attended six courses of the first semester of the Heritage and Religion master's programme.
The main goal of the exchange was to improve my formation on cultural heritage topics. Now that I have concluded my exchange, I must say that the goal was achieved and that the overall experience was enriching, not only on an academic level, but also in the personal domain.
I got the chance to discover new ways of approaching religious built heritage, specifically historical churches. Due to a constant decrease of attendance, these buildings find themselves in a crossroads: Finding a new purpose and meaning in the context of a secularized society, or become obsolete.
In order to save a church in its material and historical authenticity, the buildings can sometimes be devoid of their religious function. In consequence, churches become bookshops, bakeries, hotels, or cultural centers, providing a space for meetings and coexistence for specific communities.
I feel grateful for the support that I have received during this process from the people of both UNAM and the UG. I am especially thankful to my tutors: Professor Elsa Arroyo Lemus and Clara Bargellini Cioni (UNAM), who suggested and encouraged me to do this exchange; and Professor Todd Weir (UG), who allowed me the freedom to look for what was best for me, in order to make the most of my academic stay, and who showed concern for my well being from the first day.
I hope the collaboration UNAM-UG will continue growing, not only through the exchange of master and PhD students, but also with the establishment of new and multidisciplinary research projects concerning cultural heritage.
Researching the changing relationship between the Coca Cola Company and religion
At Theology and Religious Studies, you feel like you're part of a family. Everyone knows everyone, and it's very inclusive. This is why I decided to stay on after my Bachelor's degree in Religious Studies to pursue a Master's degree here as well. I also work as a student assistant and mentor. After completing my Master's degree, I'd love to find a job in the cultural heritage sector. This could be at a school, to teach children about cultural heritage, or at a media corporation.
During my Master’s track, I did a placement at the monastery museum in Ter Apel, where I co-organized an exhibition on how the lives of monks changed during the Reformation in the Netherlands. Some monks changed religious denomination and became Protestant, some resisted until they died, some fled and some were killed. The exhibition ran from August until December 2017. For my Master’s thesis, I am researching the changing relationship between the Coca Cola Company and religion. The Coca Cola Company has always been connected with religion and religious expression, but this relationship appears to be changing. I am doing research into these changes and what the implications are.
I love living in Groningen! There is so much to do and see. In my spare time, I take long walks in the Noorderplantsoen, or at a recreational area called Hoornse Plas, in the south of the city. My evenings are filled with activities in the small bars or cafés in the city centre. I agree with the slogan: Nothing tops Groningen!
Who benefits from the use of the past and why?
We humans are constantly making use of the past to say something about who we are in the present: sometimes unconsciously, sometimes very deliberately. Where it gets particularly interesting is when for instance formerly cherished sites, landscapes, practices, and objects are neglected, forgotten or threatened with destruction.
The war in Ukraine, climate activist vandalism, social polarisation, and the burden of mass tourism draw urgent attention to what are in fact on-going critical questions: who benefits from the use of the past and how? But what has this to do with religion? A great deal of both material and immaterial heritage around the world is religious in nature (from sacred rivers, to carnival parades). On top of this, heritage practices themselves (such as walking the Camino, or keeping a local dance tradition alive) are ways of preserving “the chain of memory” in community - they are, in other words, perhaps another way of “doing” religion.
According to current estimates, over 300 million tourists visit religious sites every year. The vast cultural, political, religious, economic, and environmental impact of these visits - whatever their motivations may be - is attracting the attention of governmental bodies on all levels, of private foundations and museums, and of industry specialists in tourism and infrastructure. This has leant urgency to the question: How do we engage, preserve and communicate the remains of our religious past?
For these reasons, it is critical that graduates in religious studies and theology be equipped to facilitate and contribute informed voices to public debate about the future of religious heritage. It is also vital for the academic research and faith communities to learn about the ways in which “lay” and “non-expert” participants actively re-appropriate religious spaces, objects, and practices formerly perhaps too narrowly defined as the domain of adherents to religious beliefs on the one hand and trained experts on the other.
Groningen’s MA in Heritage and Religion is unique in preparing you for this crucial bridge role. You will bring rigorous and critical training in theology and religion to the table in public and private discourse about religious heritage. At the same time you will learn to contribute to the academic study of religious history and to faith communities by communicating and analyzing the interests, questions and challenges that arise from the broader public’s engagement with its own and other peoples’ religious heritage.
I teach courses that engage with material aspects of religion: visual arts, liturgical rites, books, music, and objects, material culture, architecture and archaeology. The courses will provide you with training and hands-on experience of observing, describing, comparing, and analyzing religious objects, spaces, and practices from the past, and in thinking about and questioning what is at stake in their preservation, use, and adaptation in the present. Studying material religious cultures helps us to think outside the box about the nature of lived religious belief itself.
My research centers on the intersection between book history and the history of Christian worship. In Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, books comprise perhaps the largest group of religious artefacts that survive. I study the design and production of liturgical manuscripts, and, in particular, the material evidence for their intended and actual use. In this way, we can examine a religious book as if it were an archaeological site. By identifying and peeling back layers of evidence of repeated use and adaptation of single book objects sometimes over centuries, we can learn to re-consider what a religious book is for, how it works, and what it might tell us about the communities and individuals that made and used it. It is this careful and patient approach to sustained engagement with all material aspects of religion that I aim to bring to the classroom, fieldwork, and student-lead research.
A good foundation that certainly helps me in my work
Before I followed the master's degree in Heritage and Religion, I did the bachelor's degree in Social Geography and Planning at the University of Groningen. The master appealed to me because it was a perfect combination of many of my interests: the built environment, culture, history and of course religion. It turned out to be a very good choice!
As part of the master's degree, I was also able to do an internship at the Province of Groningen. I spent six months there with the Heritage, Spatial Quality and Landscape (Erfgoed, Ruimtelijke kwaliteit en Landschap) team, but mainly conducted my own research into Church Visions (Kerkenvisies) in Groningen. Church visions are part of a national programme (The Future of Religious Heritage/ Toekomst Religieus Erfgoed) of the Cultural Heritage Agency (Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed). At the time of my internship there were hardly any Groningen municipalities that were going to adopt a church vision. The province was curious why this was, so I looked for an answer during my internship by conducting interviews.
Ultimately, through the contacts I made during my internship, I came to my current job: drawing up a church vision for and at the Westerkwartier municipality. Because of my internship, my thesis and of course the courses from the master, I was well aware of how a church vision works and which dynamics play around (religious) heritage. This combination has ensured that I have received a good foundation that certainly helps me in my work. It is also just great fun to see the topics that emerged in the master's in practice.
Close encounters with the lasting influence of religion
I followed the Master's track in Religion and the Public Domain, but the course units on religious heritage from this track have now been included in the track in Religion and Cultural Heritage. The thing I liked most about the course units was how the present and the past are linked together. They focus in a very concrete way on the position of religion in Western Europe.
You go on a lot of field trips and encounter the lasting influence of religion and the position that it takes in our society from up close, for example by studying the roots of the Devotio Moderna in Deventer or by singing the St Matthew Passion together and thus feeling its impact.
I wrote my Master’s thesis on the phenomenon of ‘Michaeling’: fans following in Michael Jackson’s footsteps through a pilgrimage that brings them closer in spirit to their idol. I studied whether this was a new religious phenomenon, and concluded that the answer to this question is yes. ‘Michaeling’ is a typical example of the various forms that religion can take in our modern, post-secular society. And there is no doubt that this is a genuine pilgrimage, a spiritual experience of the kind that we associate primarily with the Middle Ages. For my research, I studied the experiences of eleven pilgrims and the Michael Jackson shrine in Germany.
According to his fans, Michael Jackson’s core message was to ‘Heal the World’ through love. Some fans feel that Michael Jackson can be seen as a new Messiah, sent by God to show people what is really important, namely love. Michael Jackson is placed by his fans within a very broad spiritual context. The followers I spoke to call themselves spiritual, but they are reluctant to commit to a specific religion. What is remarkable is that most of these fans express very Christian ideas. For his followers, Michael Jackson acts as a kind of mediator, clarifying their prior religious allegiance. It is as if Michael Jackson helps them to transition from theory to religious practice. They integrate Michael Jackson into their belief system, where he comes to play a key role as a spiritual guide, offering his fans concrete guidelines for distinguishing between good and evil and giving shape to their lives. His followers believe that Michael Jackson was severely persecuted and that he suffered tremendously as a result. However, this did not stop him from fighting for his ideals and for his fans, which makes him a true martyr in their eyes.
After I graduated, I went straight to work for the University of Groningen Humanities Support Desk, where I helped organize educational projects for secondary schools. One of the projects I was working on was De Kerk: maak er wat van!, which we set up together with the Historical Groningen Churches Foundation and which focuses on redesignation of church buildings that are no longer used as such. A year after graduating, I started as a PhD-student at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen, further researching the fascinating phenomenon of ‘Michaeling’.
You are encouraged to pursue your own interests in your placement. You can choose to do your internship in the Netherlands or abroad. Examples are:
If you do not have a bachelor's degree in either the Humanities or Behavioural and Social Sciences, you will first need to complete a pre-master's programme before you can enter this master's programme. There are several electives you can choose from. Below, you will find the complete programme.
1st semester (30 ECTS)
2nd semester (30 ECTS)
Students who do not have a bachelor's degree in Arts/Humanities or Behavioural and Social Sciences may be exempted from the requirement to complete the pre-master programme under certain conditions.
For the pre-master's programme, you will pay a so called compensation in stead of regular tuition fees. This compensation is the same for both EU and non-EU students.
If you are interested in a master's degree programme in religion, you might also be interested in: