Presenting our past
The Library and Museum of Freemasonry’s Director, Vicky Carroll, tells Edwin Smith about some of the most important – and suprising – objects in UGLE’s collection, and explains how she’s taking them to a wider audience
Having worked at some of the best-known museums in the country, Vicky Carroll took up the role of Director of the Library & Museum of Freemasonry in November 2017. She admits that her target – of doubling the Museum’s audience within five years – is ‘ambitious’, but Carroll’s credentials suggest that she’s the right person for the job. Having studied natural sciences at Jesus College, Cambridge, she stayed on to complete a Masters and then a PhD in cultural history before beginning her career at the prestigious V&A Museum in London. She went on to work at the Science Museum, the William Morris Gallery, Keats House in Hampstead and the Guildhall Art Gallery. Her passion, she says, is to give impressive collections the audience they deserve. ‘It’s seizing those opportunities to make stories and heritage more widely accessible, so that more people can benefit from them and enjoy them in a richer, deeper way.’
What was it about the role at The Library and Museum of Freemasonry that appealed to you?
When I first found out about the job, I didn’t actually know a huge amount about Freemasonry or the Museum itself. But the subject was intriguing and I wanted to find out more. I think that’s typical of a lot of people: they might not really know much about Freemasonry, but there’s a mystery there which makes it appealing. I think having that public curiosity is always a great starting place for a museum.
What did you make of the Museum on your first visit?
I was really struck by the quality of the collections; not just the Museum collection, but the Library and the archive as well. The richness and beauty of the objects was compelling. You can see why it’s been named as one of just 149 ‘designated collections’ by the Arts Council of England. [These are exceptional collections that ‘deepen our understanding of the world and what it means to be human’.] The combination of the public interest in the topic and the strength of the collection meant that there was a huge opportunity to engage a much wider audience – with the collection, with the stories, with the history of Freemasonry.
‘A lot of people don’t know much about Freemasonry, but it has a mystery which makes it appealing. I think that having that public curiosity is a great starting place’
Can you talk about the standout objects in the Museum?
We have documents showing the foundations of Freemasonry. They’re very important from a historical perspective. On display is a first edition of Anderson’s Constitutions from 1723. It’s the first time that what it meant to be a Freemason was officially recorded. Even older are the Old Charges. These are rule books for stonemasonry and go back to the 1500s. There is also the Articles of Union, the deed marking the unification of the Antients and the Moderns Grand Lodges in 1813.
We’ve got Winston Churchill’s apron, along with objects associated with royalty – as there have been so many royal Freemasons. An exhibit you can’t miss on entering the Museum is the huge gilded Grand Master’s throne made for the Prince Regent, who later became George IV. But just as important are the humbler objects with stories to tell. We have masonic jewels made from scrap materials by prisoners of war. And our ‘Suitcase Stories’ display explores how Freemasonry has shaped the lives of individuals from different walks of life.
Have you discovered anything about Freemasonry that has surprised you since you started the role?
I didn’t realise that there were – and are – female Freemasons. I was particularly struck by a display of mid-20th-century jewels from the Women’s Grand Lodge of Germany. They’re decorated with New Age symbolism and the craftsmanship is stunning.
What do you want visitors to take away when they leave?
There are a lot of misconceptions about Freemasonry. Many people simply don’t know what it is. We want to help our visitors gain a clearer understanding of Freemasonry’s origins, traditions and values, and an insight into what Freemasonry has meant for individuals and our society up to the present day. For members, the Museum is a great way to show family and friends what Freemasonry is all about.
What attracted you to a career in museums in the first place?
It was something I became interested in whilst I was doing my PhD, when I was volunteering in various museums in Cambridge. One of the things that attracted me to it was the ability to reach a broad and diverse public audience and engage them with arts and heritage. Academic research is immensely valuable, but it has more of a niche audience. Whereas I was interested in creating things that had a wider public appeal.
‘For our special exhibitions, we’ve been very proactive in engaging with the press – in line with what UGLE is doing more broadly’
How do you give exhibitions as wide an appeal as possible?
It’s often just thinking about the subject from the audience’s point of view. What reference points might that audience have that are relevant? How does the topic relate to something they already know about? Even if someone doesn’t know a lot about Freemasonry, they might know about a particular period in time, or there might be someone they’ve heard of. Also, people like to hear stories about people. More traditional museum displays might tell you about an object: what it’s made of, when it was made and so on. But often what people find engaging is who might have used it and what it might have meant to that person. And Freemasonry is great for that. It’s all about personal experience and relationships – not just physical, tangible things.
How do you plan to double the audience in five years?
Our exhibitions and permanent displays must meet the needs of the audience, while raising our public profile. For one of our current special exhibitions, Bejewelled: Badges, Brotherhood and Identity, we’ve been very proactive in engaging with the press – in line with what UGLE is doing more broadly. We’ve expanded our social media and have an e-newsletter, which people can sign up to on our website. We’re developing a new visual identity and, later this year, will launch a new website.
What’s next for the Museum?
Our exhibition programme is obviously key in attracting more Freemasons as well as members of the public to come and visit. Our newest exhibition is called Decoded: Freemasonry’s Illustrated Rulebooks. It unlocks the early history of Freemasonry through the illustrations at the front of the Constitutions. These ‘frontispieces’ tried to sum up what Freemasonry meant and its place in the world. You can see how, at various times in its early history, Freemasonry was being adapted to the local and historical situations.
Anything else to look out for?
We’re a museum, but it’s important to remember that we also have a library and an archive, so we’re an amazing resource for members who are writing lodge histories, doing preparation for a visit overseas, or researching their own family history. We’re also encouraging more students and academics to use our collection, hosting more public events, and soon we will be expanding our educational work and collaborating with artists to interpret the collection. It’s a really exciting time.
For more details, visit www.freemasonry.london.museum