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Scholars fine-tune their research on Religion and the American West during conference at Eiteljorg Museum

By Jessica Nelson, Ph.D., director of religion and culture initiatives

Seminar participants gathered in the Thompson Board Room to workshop their papers. Photo courtesy Nicole Kirk

On April 20-23, the Eiteljorg welcomed scholars from around the United States to our museum. The scholars participated in a symposium on the theme “Religion and the American West,” co-sponsored by the Clements Center for Southwestern Studies at Southern Methodist University, and the Eiteljorg. Located in Dallas, Texas, the Clements Center holds a symposium on different topics annually, and partners with other universities or cultural centers every year to promote deeper research and increased learning on a variety of topics. All of the seminar participants who came to Indianapolis – chosen out of a large number of applicants for the project – contributed essays on a particular aspect of religion in the American West. Under the guidance of two editors, the participants have been refining their essays and working on identifying a cohesive theme, with the goal of publishing the essays in an edited volume.

Brandi Denison, Ph.D., and Brett Hendrickson, Ph.D., proposed this year’s symposium topic and are serving as the co-editors of the forthcoming publication. They selected scholars working on a wide range of topics in the American West, from the mid-19th century through modern times. Some projects focus on disease, such as Mormon responses to the 1919 influenza epidemic, or religious responses to the AIDS crisis. Others center on racial identity, the boundaries of empire, and religion: the history of Chinese-Paiute marriages, Christian identity on the Marshall Islands, and Jewish burial practices in the Southwest, just to name a few.

The symposium participants – coming from universities such as Harvard, the University of Southern California and the University of Texas-Austin – spent two days workshopping their papers while at the Eiteljorg. They also enjoyed tours of the Eiteljorg’s newest permanent gallery, Expressions of Life: Native Art in North America, as well as the museum’s Collections vault.

“We at the Clements Center were thrilled to partner with the Eiteljorg on this project, given the museum’s extraordinary reputation,” said Andy Graybill, Director of the Clements Center. “And we’ve rarely had a symposium run so smoothly, a clear credit to the Eiteljorg’s staff for their professionalism and expertise,” he added.

Eiteljorg members had the opportunity to learn about all of the various research projects in a members-only Saturday morning Coffee & Conversation session on April 22. Dr. Chrissy Lau, one of the seminar participants, also gave a public presentation on her research at the Eiteljorg, on April 20, analyzing the history of the Japanese Episcopal Mission in Los Angeles throughout the 20th century. Both events sparked lively conversations about the importance of studying religion as a way of understanding and overcoming modern-day social divisions.

Look for the Eiteljorg to continue exploring these themes next spring, through our forthcoming exhibition Acts of Faith: Religion and the American West, opening April 2024. The exhibition is a partnership with the New-York Historical Society. The effort is supported with a grant from Lilly Endowment’s Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative.

Seminar participants, along with the Eiteljorg’s director of religion and culture initiatives, Jessica Nelson, pose on the stairway in Eagle Commons.

“We are so grateful for the opportunity to establish this institutional relationship,” commented Graybill, “and look forward to seeing the published results of this collaboration.” The book is anticipated to be published in fall 2024; a full list of the scholars and their topic can be found on the Clements Center website.