The rousing shrill of the bagpipes heralded this year’s Open House event at Freemasons’ Hall. And restrictions aside, visitors enjoyed a warm masonic welcome
Like everything in 2020, this year's Open House London weekend was always going to be different. This is the annual event when thousands of buildings across the capital open their doors to offer the public free behind-the-scenes tours.
COVID restrictions made sure 2020's version would be uniquely challenging, but Freemasons' Hall still attracted more than 1,300 visitors when it opened for the weekend of September 19 and 20. Attendees took self-guided tours of the Grand Temple, talked to masonic volunteers and watched a World War I re-enactment society, who set up camp in the vestibule and played bagpipes outside Freemasons' Hall every hour to attract passers-by.
'It was a big decision to go ahead but it felt very important that we do so,' says Michelle Worvell, UGLE Director of Communications and Marketing. 'This is one of our best opportunities each year to open the building and talk to the public about Freemasonry, which is hugely important to us at the moment as an organisation.
'Last year was the first time we opened on both days of the weekend and we were the second most popular building in London after the Foreign Office. We wanted to build on that success. We also did a lot digitally, so people who didn't want to attend physically could watch a video that provided a behind-the-scenes tour. We were determined to provide a great experience but in a safe COVID-compliant way and getting digital footfall where we couldn't get a physical one.'
The first step was to ensure the building was COVID secure. A one-way system was introduced, there was a temperature check at the door, numerous hand-sanitising stations were installed, and members of the public and volunteers were asked to wear masks and socially distance at all times. These protocols were followed by the public without complaint.
The next stage was to let people know the building was open. Banners were hung outside, while the UGLE, Freemasons' Hall and the Open House umbrella organisation promoted the event on social media.
'It is so important to help people understand what Freemasonry is about and how proud they are of being Freemasons.'
'Around 28 per cent of visitors saw the banners during the week before and came to see what was happening,' says Nicola Ladner, the Events Executive. 'We attracted more people through the UGLE website and social media. But a lot of them heard the bagpipes and came to see what was going on. You would see them coming over from Covent Garden when they heard the noise.'
Once inside the building, visitors went up to the vestibule, where the World War 1 re-enactment society was based. This was to mark the connection between World War 1 and Freemasons' Hall, which was built as a memorial to fallen Freemasons.
'The re-enactors really made the event,' says Nicola. 'They set up a World War I camp with a nursing station and a vintage motorcycle, and they carried out a gas drill as well as demonstrations and a talk about their uniform and equipment. They usually do cavalry displays but we didn't quite have the space for that.'
Just as important in setting the tone were the masonic volunteers. Many had taken part the previous year, relishing a rare opportunity to meet the public and talk about Freemasonry. Even with COVID, Michelle and Nicola were getting so many volunteers they had to turn people down. Ultimately, around 35 volunteers were on hand to talk to visitors and help them navigate the building.
'They loved having the chance to meet the public,' says Nicola. 'It is so important to help people understand what Freemasonry is about and how proud they are of being Freemasons. The volunteers had a very good time and that meant a lot to us as we wanted them to feel comfortable and to enjoy themselves.'
As well as the volunteers and the World War I re-enactors, leading masonic organisations including the MCF, the Freemasons' Charity, and The Order of Women Freemasons set up stalls with literature available describing what they do. The Teddies For Loving Care charity was also present and gave a free teddy to any child who purchased a mask. Adult masks were available as well. Children were also presented with a colouring book and could take part in a treasure hunt.
They were given individually sealed packs of Bright Bricks to take home so they could construct their own model of Freemasons' Hall.
The Museum of Freemasonry was open, while organists played regular recitals on the restored organ in the Grand Temple. Milling around were the genial hosts of Brother. The Masonic Podcast who were interviewing visitors and volunteers for a future show. Videos were placed online for the duration of the Open House weekend featuring recitals and a behind-the-scenes tour hosted by the museum curator. These were accessed by more than 4,000 people over the course of the weekend.
Given the situation, the organisers knew they would not match last year's record attendance, but were still delighted by the eventual turnout. This was split evenly over both days of the event and was at the higher end of their estimates.
'It went so well,' says Nicola. 'Considering the circumstances, attendance was really good and we got great feedback on the visitor survey. We know we can just pick it up next year without having had any interruption and make it even bigger and better. We can trial new things and include all the bits that really worked.' It sounds as if we can expect more bagpipes outside Freemasons' Hall in 2021.