Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

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John-WesleyThe Methodist Church in England is remarkably good at looking after its heritage these days, and finding ways of making its heritage serve its mission. The latest issue of ‘Methodist Heritage News’ (try googling it) has a number of articles likely to be of interest to readers of this blog. One that struck me was a description by Jo Hibbard, the Church’s Heritage Officer, of efforts to create a formal policy on heritage for the Church, accompanied by helpful guidance to local chapels on how to look after significant things. And this word ‘significant’ is key: ‘To help trustees assess the value of artefacts, we have produced a ‘significance grid’, This enables users to consider the financial, artistic and missional value of an artefact and whether it has Connexional, regional or local church significance. A second grid offers suggestions as to what trustees might do with an artefact of significance.’

The article points out that British Methodism has four Accredited museums, ‘in places of worldwide Connexional significance.’ One of these of course is at the New Room, Bristol, and this gives me a chance to mention another periodical: the latest edition of Ecclesiology Today, the journal of the Ecclesiological Society. This double-issue is devoted to churches cared for by trusts, and one example is a description of the ‘Horsefair Project’ at the New Room, written up by its Warden, Gary Best. Partly this is a depressing account, showing the problems that can arise when well-meaning experts – in this case local planning officers and English Heritage staff – disagree with each other. But it is also cheering, because agreement has finally been reached, and a new building project at this crucial and very sensitive site will create new facilities for the New Room’s seventy stewards, new visitor facilities, new education space and so on. Most excitingly for us, though, the project will allow a substantial expansion of the small museum. The New Room’s website describes it thus:

Currently visitors can access a small museum housed in some of the Preachers’ Rooms that Wesley had built above the Chapel. By moving our current offices, meeting rooms, and library into the new building, the Horsefair project releases the entire upstairs of the 1748 building for use as a new Heritage Museum. The additional space will provide an exciting opportunity to radically improve our displays and tell the story of the Wesleys far more powerfully through nine themed rooms. The new building will also provide a lift to the Preachers’ Rooms that will, for the first time, enable disabled access to the upstairs Museum. What better place to tell the story of John and Charles Wesley than in the rooms they created for their use and that of other preachers?

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