Teaching about World Religions

Teaching about world religions through scriptural, literary, and artistic sources is an excellent way to introduce students to diverse traditions and cultures. However, using such information in the classroom can often be challenging and confusing. To explore this topic, two daylong professional development workshops for educators took place at the museum during the recent exhibition The Art of the Qur’an. Held on on November 5, 2016, and January 28, 2017, the workshops, titled “Exploring World Religions: Focus on Islam,” were organized by the Freer|Sackler and the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) at Georgetown University. More than fifty educators attended.

I recently asked Dr. Susan Douglass, K–14 education outreach coordinator at CCAS, about her work at the center and the impact of our work together.

As an educator, how do you resolve the need for a more inclusive worldview in the face of forces that seem to be pulling us in the opposite direction?

I am a world historian, and I believe that learning about the entire human experience on a global level is as important a civic enterprise as learning about the United States or any country’s national history. We are all citizens of nations whose formation is a modern phenomenon, but our common roots go back to the Africans who ventured across the continents tens of thousands of years ago. We have, in short, common origins. Knowing how human cultures interacted to give our generation the gifts and challenges that we share lends us a sense of responsibility for the future that overshadows artificial divisions. The United States is among the most diverse nations, and we have found a way to live together that we can maintain if we insist on elevating knowledge over ignorance of one another, and [on] encouraging respectful speech and behavior toward one another.

What messages and approaches do you hope the teachers in the workshop took back to their classrooms?

The once-in-a-lifetime The Art of the Qur’an exhibition gave visitors a chance to discover the Qur’an as a scripture [and] what stories it tells. I hope that teachers gained familiarity with it as a meaningful historical document on that level. The exhibit and the lectures also showed the artistic care given to preserving the Qur’an and refining its expression in Arabic script. I hope the teachers gained an appreciation for the technical process of calligraphy and illumination, and for the sheer beauty of the manuscripts and other objects. In fact, the teachers expressed great appreciation for the workshop and felt that their day at the gallery was a wonderful one.

Teachers have an opportunity to influence students’ perspectives about others. How can art provide a non-threatening way to explore tricky issues of race, religion, and identity?

One of the remarkable things about the exhibition that [didn’t] jump out at first glance is that these works represent the thought, effort, and artistry of people who belonged to a vast array of ethnicities and linguistic backgrounds, who coalesced around the Arabic Qur’an without necessarily being Arabs [themselves]. Those artists also represented enormous class differences over time, from common people elevated by their commitment to belief to those whose acquired skill brought them royal commissions to illuminate the manuscripts with powdered gold and precious stones.

The art of beautiful writing is a shared human contribution to the continuity of learning that transcends loss over time. I try to expose teachers and students to primary source documents that show how people of many faiths contributed to the preservation of knowledge. Because of their commitment to knowledge, they were willing and able to transcend individual differences to build bridges of continuity across time. Without such diverse people’s love of learning, we would have lost the link to valuable accumulated knowledge. In short, if we cannot overcome trivial differences to work toward the common good, we face tremendous loss that will affect all of us. Putting evidence of this continuity of human achievement in front of the public is among the most important functions of art museums.

As a convert to Islam, you have a foot in more than one world. What insight have you gained about how others may view your adopted faith?

I have been a practicing Muslim for more than forty years, or about two-thirds of my life. I have spent time in Germany, Egypt, and the US as a Muslim, each offering very different perspectives that have changed over time with world events. I find it easy to locate common ground with the people with whom I interact directly, who often include educators, but also people of many walks of life. A lot of the problem with Islamophobia is that many people have never met a Muslim—or don’t think they have. In fact, they may very well not have known the person’s religious identity. There are certainly distinctive elements in the many different Muslim cultures with which I am acquainted, but they all have much in common with who I am as a person raised in Cleveland, Ohio, in a family with Scotch-Irish and German immigrant roots going back to the eighteenth century. In order to overcome real and perceived divisions, it is necessary to learn about each other’s deepest differences, but also our common hopes and dreams for a just society and sustainable world.

Meet our Volunteer: Michael Ruddell

Bottle; Korea, late 18th–19th century; Bunwon ware; porcelain with transparent, pale blue glaze; Gift of Graenum and Emma Berger and Elizabeth Lee Berger in memory of Ambassador Samuel D. Berger; F1980.188

Bottle; Korea, late 18th–19th century; Bunwon ware; porcelain with transparent, pale blue glaze; Gift of Graenum and Emma Berger and Elizabeth Lee Berger in memory of Ambassador Samuel D. Berger; F1980.188

Michael Ruddell has volunteered at the Freer|Sackler since 2016 as a Visitor Information Specialist (VIS). VIS provide essential services to the Smithsonian by offering a warm welcome and useful information to our visitors about exhibitions, activities, services, and more. I recently asked him a few questions about his work at the museum.

What drew you to the Freer|Sackler?

I’ve volunteered at Freer|Sackler for a year this month. For as long as I have lived in the DC area, I have been wandering through the Smithsonian museums. This has been a great opportunity for me to get more involved and to learn about art, history, and the people who value and create it.

What’s the most satisfying experience about volunteering for the museum?

As a Volunteer Information Specialist, I get to serve as an ambassador and public face of the Smithsonian Institution, which is very exciting. I really enjoy witnessing how our visitors experience the museum. It’s a lot of fun and very rewarding to hear their perspectives on the art and to learn from the many kinds of people who come to visit.

Can you share a memorable interaction with a visitor you have had?

Throughout the course of the Turquoise Mountain exhibition [on view through October 29, 2017], I [have been] lucky enough to meet some of the artisans from Afghanistan who came to demonstrate their skills in calligraphy, ceramics, and other arts for us at the museum. They were incredibly kind and extraordinarily talented. I watched them working and got to listen in on their conversations with the visitors.

I particularly remember watching Abdul Matin Malekzadah create a beautiful and intricate clay teapot in a matter of minutes (lid, handle, spout, and all) with a traditional potter’s wheel in the gallery, to the amazement of the visitors watching. When he had finished a piece, he would unceremoniously lump it all together and begin again on something different. The visitors’ reactions were priceless.

What’s your favorite artwork in the collection?

I’ve come to love the ceramics in the collection since I started volunteering, especially the Korean pieces. I like to think about the people who molded these shapes and worked so hard to produced these colors. I’m sure [museum founder Charles Lang] Freer would have loved a bottle like this one—it’s gorgeous.