14 September 2016
An address by Diane Clements and Stephen Greenberg: 'From Concept to Reality: Creating an Exhibition about Three Centuries of English Freemasonry'
Diane Clements: As you may have read in the paper of business, the Library and Museum team has spent much of the last couple of years developing and installing a new gallery, with an exhibition called Three Centuries of English Freemasonry. This is one of the Library and Museum’s contributions to the celebrations of the tercentenary of Grand Lodge. The gallery is open now on the first floor.
All of us working in the Library and Museum had appreciated for some time that we needed to do more to explain the concept and history of Freemasonry, both to the public and to members, than we had been able to do either via our existing displays, temporary exhibitions or regular public tours of this building.
In 2012 we worked with Stephen Greenberg and his colleagues at Metaphor on a feasibility study for upgrading the existing museum space and the displays there. This caught the imagination of the Library and Museum Council, and the Board of General Purposes, and we were instead allocated an additional 200 square metres of space near the Library and Museum to develop the scheme. I am delighted that Stephen has been able to join me today to talk about the project.
Stephen Greenberg: We are both exhibition designers and architects with a long experience working in listed and historic spaces. We were introduced to the Freemasons after our work at the Museum of the Order of St John just down the road in Clerkenwell. As soon as we began working with Diane and her team, we saw the spaces, the remarkable collections and heard the fascinating stories behind them we could see the potential. Being given the Prince Regent room to work with as well as the library is an added bonus, because it enriches the publicly accessible parts of the building, and when lodge meetings are not taking place the doors open up into the adjoining rooms.
DC: Two hundred square metres sounds like a lot of space – and it looked quite large to me when it was empty – but we soon realised as we worked closely with Metaphor that we were going to have to take some tough decisions about what to include in terms of what subjects we could cover and that would result in some difficult decisions about what objects, books and documents to choose.
However, we were determined that the exhibition should seek to explain Freemasonry’s values of sociability, inclusivity, charity and integrity as well as its history and development. In doing that we believe that the exhibition breaks new ground and we hope that it provides another mechanism by which members can explain to friends, contacts and potential new members what Freemasonry is all about and we can give our general visitors a better insight.
SG: Exhibitions work best when they come as a complete surprise and take your breath away when you enter, and then when they are wonderful vehicles for sharing passions, whether it is one of the Library and Museum team taking one down unexpected paths into Freemasonry and its history or enthusing with groups of young people or members explaining to friends and families
DC: The exhibition is, appropriately enough, in three sections. This approach was retained from the feasibility stage. At the beginning, visitors walk underneath the sign for the Goose and Gridiron tavern just as those first Freemasons attending Grand Lodge did on 24th June 1717. The first section explores the values of Freemasonry as well as its symbolism and ritual and includes a timeline tracing its history up to 1813. The second section looks at what a lodge room looks like, how a lodge works, and the social side of Freemasonry. Displays also show the three Craft degrees and masonic hierarchy and the Royal Arch, the only other order explored in any detail. Here we also cover the contribution of Provincial, District and Metropolitan Grand Lodges both in a case display and also in a short film about Freemasonry and public life. Freemasonry abroad is covered in the third section which brings the story up to date with the challenges that Freemasonry has had to face in the twentieth century. As Stephen has mentioned visitors also get the chance here to look into one of the twenty or so lodge rooms in this building.
The design that Stephen and his team developed proved to work well in terms of the content that we wanted to include even if we had to make some hard choices about what objects to leave out. The graphic element of the exhibition was also within their remit and I will admit that the limited word count that resulted was a tremendous challenge.
If you want to try this yourselves, try describing the history of Freemasonry in about 150 words!
SG: Leaving out artefacts is the hardest challenge – personally I love the writing table that has the model of the first temple concealed within it and a series of calculation tables revealed on the underside of the opening panels – and some of the many chairs. But what is exciting is that we can now move forward progressively with the refurbishment of the Library and Museum space giving many objects more space and bringing others out of store. There is the opportunity to make these accessible in interesting ways.
DC: For the first time the new gallery has enabled us to use more technology in the displays. There is a second short film about the history of this Great Queen Street site and the various Freemasons’ Halls.
Another challenge which I am sure many of you have faced is to try to explain symbolism and for this we created an interactive game which you can try either in the gallery or on our website. There aren’t any prizes because there aren’t any “right” answers. What we have tried to do is to convey the idea that symbols often have a multiplicity of meanings of which the masonic is just one.
The report on the Library and Museum in the paper of business mentions one of our other initiatives last year – our partnership with Ancestry to digitise membership records for 1.7 million Freemasons initiated between 1750 and 1921. We were keen that the new gallery should include both famous and not so famous Freemasons. We have the Duke of Windsor’s initiate’s apron alongside Sir Winston Churchill’s Master Mason’s apron alongside the membership certificate for the Duke of Windsor’s chauffeur – showing visitors that they were all members of the same organisation despite their very different status. In one of the final cases we have on display the regalia for two “ordinary” Freemasons and the regalia cases of many others. It’s designed to look a little bit like a lodge anteroom with all the cases – although possibly a bit tidier?
As Stephen said earlier creating the new gallery was just the first stage. It has also allowed us to start to redisplay the main museum space – to give some objects more prominence – such as the “mysterious masonic table” which Stephen referred to and to show some items which have long been in store. We aren’t stopping there of course as we are continuing to do temporary exhibitions in the Library area.
2017 is not a point to stop but a point from which to go forward. We are fortunate to work with Grand Lodge’s extraordinarily rich collection of objects, books and documents and there is lots more to do.
At the Quarterly Communication in June, the Pro Grand Master spoke about enjoyment as one aspect of what Freemasonry offers. In case Stephen and I have made the new gallery sound a terribly serious and worthy place perhaps we can just finish by mentioning a couple of the more playful objects and displays. When you visit don’t forget to look out for the masonic jelly mould, the masonic toast rack and the rather strange looking elephant on the jewel for Calabar Lodge.
There are 281 days to Grand Lodge’s 300th birthday next June so do please visit the new gallery today and then join our countdown to the 24th June on social media which features objects from the exhibition!