Smithsonian exhibit explores intersections of science and religion

Many people assume there is a conflict between science and religion, but a new exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History aims to show that the intersection of the two in American culture is broader than conflict.

The yearlong exhibit – “Discovery and Revelation: Religion, Science, and Making Sense of Things” – is framed by three questions: “What does it mean to be human?”  “What do we owe each other?”  and “What is our place in the universe?”

Why We Wrote This

Science and religion are cultural lenses for understanding the world – and they often conflict. But a new Smithsonian exhibit aims to show where they intersect and inspire.

An instance of accord between the lenses of science and religion is captured in a display of the Apollo 8 mission to the moon. Encased in glass is a flight manual opened to the page of Bible text that the three astronauts read in a broadcast back to Earth from their 1968 Christmas Eve orbit of the moon. The inspiration of that moment comes through decades later in the exhibit’s crackly video loop of the reading of the ancient Genesis creation story aboard a scientifically engineered spacecraft.

The curator of the exhibit, Peter Manseau, says, “What we’ve seen is that the intersection of religion and science is still very present in our approach and our interpretation of what to do in the face of something like a pandemic.”  

Washington

At the end of tumultuous 1968 – a year of political assassinations, war, riots, the crushing of the Prague Spring – the view from Earth was bleak. The world needed hope – and Apollo 8 astronauts orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve read the creation text from Genesis’ first chapter to a billion listeners.

The inspiration from the astronauts reading Old Testament Scripture on a scientifically engineered spacecraft comes through even decades later and on a crackly video loop in the new exhibit “Discovery and Revelation: Religion, Science, and Making Sense of Things” at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Such intersections of religion and science in American culture are part of the focus of the yearlong exhibit.   

Why We Wrote This

Science and religion are cultural lenses for understanding the world – and they often conflict. But a new Smithsonian exhibit aims to show where they intersect and inspire.

Many people assume that there is a conflict between science and religion, says Peter Manseau, the exhibit curator. But he wants visitors to walk away realizing that the interaction is much broader than a story of conflict alone.

Jaclyn Nash/Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

The Apollo 8 flight manual, opened to the passage from the first chapter of Genesis that astronauts read during a broadcast, is on display as part of the exhibit “Discovery and Revelation.”

“The challenge was trying to expand the terms of engagement with which religion and science are usually discussed,” says Mr. Manseau.

To accomplish that, three prompting questions frame the exhibit: “What does it mean to be human?”  “What do we owe each other?” and “What is our place in the universe?”