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!
12 September 2012
United Grand Lodge of England has voted to withdraw recognition from Grande Loge Nationale Française (GLNF) with immediate effect.
A full statement will follow shortly.
At its Quarterly Communication in September 2011 the United Grand Lodge of England resolved that relations between it and the Grande Loge Nationale Française (“GLNF”) be suspended.
During the intervening months the situation within the GLNF has deteriorated rather than improved, and the continuing turbulence makes it impossible to determine the true state of affairs.
After long and careful consideration the Board of General Purposes will, in the absence of any dramatic change in circumstances, recommend in its Report to the September Communication of the Grand Lodge that it is in the best interests of the United Grand Lodge of England that recognition be withdrawn from the GLNF.
If that recommendation is accepted by Grand Lodge, a consequence will be that those members of Lodges under the United Grand Lodge of England who are currently also members of Lodges under the GLNF will be forced to choose whether to resign from all such Lodges or to resign from their Lodges under the UGLE.
As UGLE’s Communications Advisor, Susan Henderson’s job is about managing relationships – from dealing with unusual enquires to overseeing information flow
How did you come to work for UGLE?
I’d just moved back to London and popped into an agency looking for a job. They sent me for an interview around the corner at ‘a charity’. As I walked along the road, I realised it was Freemasons’ Hall, as I had recently been reading about Freemasonry. I was interviewed by Director of Communications, John Hamill, for the role of his PA and got the job. This was in 2002 and it couldn’t have worked out better in that I’d been wanting to find out more about Freemasonry and there I was sitting with one of the foremost experts.
Did your previous experience prepare you for your new job?
Before UGLE, I worked in different areas – from social services, to model agencies and advertising. I last worked for the BBC on news and before that on Comic Relief, sharing an office with Richard Curtis, who wrote Four Weddings & A Funeral. These experiences gave me a good overview of how organisations work and where to find information.
How did you become a female Freemason?
I’d been here a few years before I realised there were regular women’s grand lodges and I wondered if I should join. The Grand Secretary at the time knew I was interested and introduced me to the master of a female lodge who put me forward as a candidate. I already had preconceptions of Freemasonry’s ancient traditions, the rituals and origins and the idea of the knowledge that could be imparted, and the experience was pretty near to what I’d imagined. I’m now a junior warden and am steadily learning more. With Freemasonry, you’re thrown in with varied people who you wouldn’t be otherwise – it’s good for you.
How does your relationship with the Provinces work?
We were doing MQ Magazine and I started helping more with the editorial. That merged with Freemasonry Today to make the magazine we have now and I took on the duty of liaising with the Provincial information officers in gathering stories. They have an important role in bringing to our attention anything that might be of interest in terms of local events or any problems. They also disseminate information from Grand Lodge and have been doing a great job in getting our message out to the local press and communities.
How do you deal with negative press?
National newspapers are in the habit of making slurs about Freemasonry, which it’s very difficult to do anything about. We are an unincorporated organisation, so have no protection under the libel laws. If they make a statement that is untrue or defamatory we can write to them to make a correction but they’re under no obligation to print it. The best way to counter these perceptions is therefore to put out lots of positive information about Freemasonry and hope that it will enable more people to recognise the negative remarks as nonsense.
Where does this negativity come from?
In the Second World War, Freemasons were being sent to concentration camps in Germany and it was decided that Freemasonry should keep a low profile in the UK in case of invasion. Before this, the sight of Freemasons laying foundation stones or participating in parades was common. After the war, the low profile became a bit of a habit. The Cold War also made spy novels popular and these would sometimes cast Freemasons as key characters, so the idea caught light in the public imagination that Freemasonry was a secret organisation. We became aware of this and tried to counter it but the image portrayed in fiction is – to some people – more interesting and exciting than the truth.
What else do people believe?
We get some crazy questions asked through the website – for example, if I join Freemasonry, will I gain magical powers or will it make me rich? A few people have the bizarre idea that Freemasons are reptilian aliens. The more sane anti-masonic ideas tend to be that Freemasons use their membership to gain personal advantage in their careers. When you think about it, that’s the daftest of all because if people want to conspire or do each other favours, they can do that at any time and at any place – in the pub, the golf club, or across the garden fence.
So there are still big misconceptions about Freemasonry?
People misunderstand what the obligations are and what should be kept private. There is no obligation to favour other Freemasons and the only tangible privacy relates to the signs and passwords that give you the right to be present in a particular degree ceremony. They are no more sinister than pin numbers and are used only in the lodge. The passwords and signs are believed to have originated through medieval stonemasons who travelled around the world looking for work and needed to prove their level of competence when they arrived at a distant lodge.
Can Freemasons help counter these opinions?
Some members are overly defensive about Freemasonry because of anti-masonic attitudes. We need to help our members deal with this, to help them calmly explain that it’s not just an organisation for white Anglo Saxon Protestants. In Ireland it used to be said that there were only two things that united them – rugby and Freemasonry. There’s always been one United Grand Lodge with Catholics and Protestants attending without a problem and it’s little things like this that members can tell their friends.
Is your job largely about countering negative opinions?
Not at all. Most questions are from people who want to know about Freemasonry and I spend a lot time answering those. If I answer 30 emails a day that’s 7,800 people a year who will have received a good response, which is invaluable. People don’t think M&S or Selfridges are good companies because they have a nice leaflet or website, they like them because they know they’ll get good service and that’s the best form of publicity. People are too sophisticated these days to be influenced by public relations spin. They go on word of mouth or direct experiences. Days, weeks, years later a casual conversation in a pub about that experience will mean a good impression of Freemasonry is being spread.
Does Freemasonry need to change?
Organisations that follow the whims of the day tend to lose their identity and, to use a marketing term, Freemasonry’s unique selling point is its ancient traditions and its symbolism is its branding. We would be fools to tamper with that. Our strength is that we have remained much the same through many political changes and fashions. I’d personally like everyone to understand that we are not even allowed to discuss politics or religion in the lodge, so can hardly be colluding; that there have been established female lodges for over 100 years; and that we’re not just recently jumping onto some politically correct bandwagon, but have always been a welcoming universal brotherhood.