Mark Dennis, curator of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry at Freemasons’ Hall, explains to Luke Turton why his job is all about challenging assumptions
Why did you join the Library and Museum of Freemasonry?
I answered the advert in Museums Journal, which is how qualified curators find their jobs. It was visiting the museum before I applied that made me want the post – as someone with a prior interest and specialism in uniforms and regalia, these fantastic collections were something I really wanted to explore. As a non-mason it has been a fascinating journey into the heart of Freemasonry and towards realising what it means to its members and the outside world. I previously worked as curator for HM Customs and Excise so dealing with an organisation that people are prone to misunderstand or have strong views about came naturally.
How have the collections changed since you started working here?
We’ve been looking for the more commonplace. If it’s rare and it’s precious, we’ve probably got six, but if it’s average, we probably haven’t got one because it wouldn’t have occurred to a mason to give it to the Grand Lodge. When we got here, there wasn’t a case showing basic Craft regalia because the assumption was that everyone knows what it looks like – but the public don’t. That process of openness continues today. When I got here, we wouldn’t have had a case on women’s Freemasonry, yet a few years ago we had an entire exhibition on a female grand lodge centenary.
Have the visitors changed over the years?
Things are shifting. We get a younger and more diverse audience who are genuinely curious and don’t have preconceptions. It’s all about making people think about their views on Freemasonry. With all the regalia and ritual, they might find what Freemasons do mysterious, but go back sixty years before the welfare state and every working man, as well as many women, were in friendly societies – it was the only way you got sick pay or death benefits. All these societies had regalia and ritual, so did the trade unions. The profile of the Freemasons and of this Grand Lodge in particular is the last visible bit of what used to be completely understood before the Second World War.
What is the Library and Museum trying to achieve?
The museum was originally designed for Freemasons to advance in their knowledge. The museum therefore presumed visitors knew what was going on. However, in recent years we and our predecessors have been working through the material culture of Freemasonry, using it to build up a picture of masonic life on an exhibition-by-exhibition basis. We’ve done things on masonic dining and sociability; the relationship between Freemasonry and religion; women in Freemasonry; and additional degrees – some Freemasons don’t realise there are twenty additional masonic orders that you can join so there’s the spotters’ guide up on the wall. We don’t have an agenda but we do want people to realise the depth, richness and complexity of the subject matter. We’ve also designed it so that if you are a Freemason, you can use the displays to talk to family members or potential candidates. This is the museum of the Grand Lodge and we should never forget that it is primarily for the members.
How do you decide what to put on display?
For the exhibitions, we look for facets that people wouldn’t know about. I wouldn’t show anything that spoiled the surprise of any of the rituals – for example, an object that is used. However, we are looking to be comprehensive in terms of lodges that come under the United Grand Lodge of England. We want something from every single lodge in the constitution, be it ephemera, lodge history or a jewel.
We have a display of Henry Muggeridge, who was a very famous Victorian mason, and we have the jewel worn by his proposer, his handwritten notes when he was in his eighties and everything in between. We collect people not things. They have a financial value but they’re also irreplaceable historically. We have a gavel made from a rifle captured in battle (pictured above right) and used in masonic meetings in the combat zone, and jewels made in a lodge held in a Japanese internment camp in the Second World War. How do you put a price on those? If the building’s burning down, none of us will head for the gold and silver, we’ll all go for the one-off pieces that tell a story.
How much restoration work do you carry out?
We don’t take things in poor condition unless they’re absolutely vital for the story – we’re not miracle workers. We are working through our collections and looking at things that need conservation, like books and fabrics, but we’re here to archive, we’re a service industry. We do publish academic papers, but primarily we are here to make people aware of the collections, wake people up to the fact that it’s here and hope they ask us questions so that we can start digging around. It’s the same in the lodges – if it weren’t for the fact that lodge archivists have been keeping records and writing histories for the past two hundred and fifty years, so much would have been lost. The things in our museum now are a unique resource.
Where else could I find Freemasonry artefacts?
Apart from the provincial masonic museums, the display of Freemasonry in the UK is next to nil – I think museums are afraid of it and that they might get it wrong. What keeps me here is that, as a curator, I’m doing something that no one else is. It can get a bit lonely but it’s fascinating. We want to point out that the world is moving, that people do have an interest in fraternity in the broadest sense, as well as in Freemasonry, and that maybe the time is coming for it to be displayed in other collections. Museums out there are missing a trick.
Do you show how Freemasonry is interpreted throughout the world?
The main thing is to pick out a core message of the Grand Lodge, like brotherly love, and then find out more about the stories that relate to that core. However, under the surface of what we do there is historical tension when looking at global Freemasonry in all its diversity, against how it was originally created in the UK. While it’s a very adaptable organisation in the UK, especially if you look at how its changed in the last few years, it has still kept its core beliefs of no politics or religion. When this changes around the world, is it still Freemasonry? The public have no idea about regularity or recognition, for them if someone calls themselves a Freemason, that’s what they are. But it’s not that simple, it’s a sensitivity that we’re working on and is an interesting line to walk.
What do you like about your job?
I came here for three years and I’ve been here for twelve. I said I’d leave when I get bored and that hasn’t happened yet. The joy of this collection is that it makes people really think and, as curator, it’s at the root of what I do: to wake people up and make them consider why it is that they hold certain ideas and beliefs.