Still a house of God? The redundant church as museum

An article by Clare Haynes, University of East Anglia

Closed 20 years ago, the St Peter Hungate Museum of Ecclesiastical Art was a trailblazing museum run by the Norwich (later Norfolk and Norwich) museum service (NMS) for nearly 80 years. Its fascinating history has recently been investigated as part of the HERILIGION project, which explored what happens to religious sites and objects when they become heritagized. Hungate has much to tell us about the complex, apparently paradoxical, relations of the religious, sacred and secular, which were the project’s main focus.1 However, the history of the Museum’s foundation, its collections and displays is also a significant, if overlooked, part of the history of religious collecting in the UK.

Norwich is a city of churches.  Although once there were nearly 60, some 31 remain (more than any city north of the Alps). In themselves they form a kind of collection, all Grade I listed but each unique, significant architecturally and historically in their different ways. For over a century, however, their sheer number has been a problem for the Diocese, and the City. After the sweeping economic and social changes of the early nineteenth century, Norwich became over-churched as people moved out to the growing suburbs, where new churches were built. This was a pattern repeated in many other places, including, for example, the City of London and York. Left often to the poorest residents, many inner city parishes struggled not just to keep their church open but to keep the roof on.  In Norwich, one medieval church was demolished in the mid-1880s and, by 1900, another, St Peter Hungate, was facing the same fate. At this time, ecclesiastical law dictated that if no religious use could be found (as a parish room, or school, for example), a building must be declared redundant and dilapidated, partially or completely. This practice continued well into the 20th century, and it may still happen if no religious or secular use can be identified but is now rare. The growing influence of the heritage movement has made such a solution less and less tenable.

Fig 1. Anon., St Peter Hungate c. 1910, postcard, private collection

Hungate was saved at the eleventh hour by the intervention of a group of local antiquarians working in concert with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). To them, Hungate was precious, not for religious reasons but for heritage ones. Its wonderful medieval roof and stained glass, together with its connections to the famous medieval Paston family caught their imaginations. After a significant campaign of renovation, the church was re-opened in 1908 and the parish staggered on until the late 1920s when yet again it faced a crisis, of money and purpose.

Demolition or partial dilapidation remained the only resort unless another religious use could be found. However, in a small city, so densely over-churched, this proved impossible.  Nevertheless Hungate was saved. This time by a remarkable partnership of the Town (later City) Council, its museum service, and the Diocese. The idea to turn the church into a museum seems to have been that of Frank Leney, the curator of the Norwich Castle Museum, who had visited Paris with the Museums Association in 1921. It is likely that he saw at least one of the churches there that had been put to different uses after the French Revolution such as the Musée des Arts et Métiers.

Fig 2. Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris.
Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mus%C3%A9e_des_Arts_et_M%C3%A9tiers_11,_Paris.JPG
Rilba,CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Turning a church into an ecclesiastical museum might appear to be only a very slight change in function to us these days, used as we are to churches being converted into houses, shops and restaurants, but in the 1920s this was a ground-breaking move on two fronts. Firstly the church was to be leased to a secular authority, and secondly, its proposed function was beyond the previously understood boundaries of church law – this was not to be a religious institution (there was no provision for prayer, for example). Hungate was heritagized more completely than it had been before.

The plans for the museum, and its opening on 27th June 1933, were widely reported in the local and national press.

Fig 3. Anon., Opening Ceremony of the St Peter Hungate Museum of Ecclesiastical Art, Eastern Daily Press, 27/06/1933 (researcher’s photograph) Norfolk Record Office (N/LM 2/4), with thanks to Eastern Daily Press/Archant

One prescient report observed that Hungate offered a way forward for the Church of England, in finding new uses for redundant churches.2 Other commentators suggested that it was more appropriate to display religious objects in a church, rather than a museum such as the Castle. Just how it was to be considered – as museum, as church, as sacred or secular – was much less clear. At the opening ceremony, the Bishop of Norwich, Bertram Pollock offered his view:

I do not . . . consider that this little gem of a church is being divorced from its original purpose when it is being constituted a repository of ecclesiastical art. Let us not say to ourselves, ‘The city-dwelling population is so much reduced that these churches can go. What a capital idea to find some use for a derelict place of worship.’ We will rather hope that in a new way it will do some of its former spiritual work. We will ask that it may be still a House of God, teaching the things of God through the eye if no longer through the ear.3

For Pollock, the transition from place of worship to museum was significant but not so marked as to prevent Hungate from being still a house of God. 

Also present at the ceremony that day was Eric Maclagan, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, who was a great supporter of the Hungate project. Maclagan was a curator and a committed Christian, the son of an archbishop and a leading figure on the Central Council for the Care of Churches. The following year he opened a temporary exhibition of ecclesiastical pewter at Hungate and offered his perspective on Hungate as church and as museum:

in adapting the church so perfectly as a museum of ecclesiastical art Norwich has set an example . . . It might be true that the church was not serving precisely the purpose for which it was destined by its pious builders, but it still testified to the glory of God, just as it did when it was used as a place of public worship. Museums were not places which were to be regarded as wholly secular and divorced from the honour of the Creator.4

Maclagan was, as a curator, heir to a long tradition of viewing museums as “consecrated to the holy ends of art”.5 For him, like Pollock who quoted Goethe in his speech, art was a path to God. It is striking indeed that both men used the word “divorced”. The same sacred task was being continued by different means; secularization in the sense of a divorce from the religious was not in their minds.6

To begin with, Hungate was open only in the spring and summer, with objects from the City’s museum collections supplemented by loans from the Victoria and Albert Museum and increasingly from parish churches in the diocese. Soon however the Museum was open all year, and temporary exhibitions, often with substantial numbers of loans, like the one of ecclesiastical pewter in 1934, were also a feature of the museum’s activities. In the first two decades loan exhibitions from the Victoria and Albert Museum were common, and included medieval illuminated manuscripts (1949) and English medieval alabasters (1951). Over time, Hungate became the repository for many local religious objects that had no current liturgical purpose, or which parishes could no longer afford to insure or maintain.

Fig 4. Anon., Interior of the St Peter Hungate Church Museum, c. 1965, postcard, private collection

Ecclesiastical vestments were an increasing strength, cared for by curator Pamela Clabburn during the 1960s and early 70s, a specialist conservator and textile historian.  During this period too, the educator Rachel Young became responsible, as Keeper of Social History, for Hungate (together with Strangers’ Hall and the Bridewell Museum), and she produced both a history of Hungate, and a Guide to the museum (by this time known as the St Peter Hungate Church Museum). The latter booklet shows the range of the collections on display in the 1960s and 70s, which included medieval wood and stone carvings, pre- and post-Reformation paintings, reliquaries, musical instruments, pilgrim badges, monumental brasses, communion plate, pax-boards, censers and papal seals. It also demonstrates the historical, rather than religious or spiritual, tone of their presentation. Hungate’s mission was described as “illustrating the theme of the arts in the service of Christianity” but it also told a history of Christianity from the medieval period to the present day through objects; most but by no means all were from Norfolk.7

Fig 5. Anon., Cover of St Peter Hungate Church Museum by Rachel Young, Norwich Museum Service, reprinted 1975

By the 1990s Hungate was both Norwich’s smallest museum, and the one least suitable under changing conservation standards. Austerity measures of the late 1990s, which threatened the whole of the County’s museum service, led to Hungate being closed in 2001. Since 2007 it has been home to a trust which encourages engagement with medieval art and history (www.hungate.org.uk). The collections were dispersed to other museums in the service, or returned to their lenders. This was not an unopposed decision, and Hungate’s closure as a museum is still regretted by some. It is not unusual to find visitors today who recall with fondness their visits with their school or family, recalling particular displays or the fun they had brass rubbing, which was introduced in the early 1980s.

Moved out of the church, the Hungate collection was decontextualized in two ways. Firstly it was removed from that setting which was considered so appropriate for it by its founders. Whether this resulted in a change of identity, a divorce of the kind that Bishop Pollock and Eric Maclagan described, amounting to secularization, is a large question that, regrettably, cannot be pursued here.8 Secondly, dispersed to other museums, the objects are now, where they are on display, presented within a chronological/social history/stylistic frame, rather than a religious one. The history of Christianity as it was once told in Norfolk is now narrated episodically, object by object.9 The new medieval displays that are central to Norwich Castle: Royal Palace Reborn project (under construction) will no doubt shed new light on them, and tell their stories differently again.

The legacy of the Hungate Museum of Church Art remains a significant one, not least in the NMS’s rich holdings of religious objects.  Its history poses an intriguing question: is there a place for a museum of Christianity in this country of the kind that Hungate was, and which now flourishes in the Netherlands (the Museum Catharijneconvent, in Utrecht)?10 If there were, what would be in it, where would it be, and what stories might it tell?

Dr Clare Haynes FSA, c.haynes@uea.ac.uk


NOTES

1 The history of Hungate would repay further investigation.  Time for research was quite short, and focussed largely on these key questions. See note 6 below.

2 See The Listener 10/02/1932, and for the influence of Hungate in relation to redundancy, the image of Hungate in the Report of the Archbishop’s Commission on Redundant Churches, London, 1960. For the background, see J. Delafons, Politics and Preservation: a policy history of the built heritage, 1882-1996, Spon, 1997, pp. 119-135.

3 Eastern Daily Press 28th June 1933.

4 Eastern Daily Press, 13th June 1934.

5 Goethe quoted in C. Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: inside public art museums, Routledge, 1995, p. 15. For comparable views in the British context see S. Cheeke, ‘Hazlitt and the Louvre’, Keats-Shelley Journal, 2007, 56, pp. 111-135.

6 For these issues see Clare Haynes, ‘A New Order: art and piety in religious heritage space’, Anthropological Notebooks, 26:3, 2021 (forthcoming) and Ibid., ‘The Redundant Church: heritage management of the religious-sacred-secular nexus’ in I. Stengs et al (eds.), Management of Religion, Sacralisation of Heritage, Berghahn, 2021 (forthcoming).

7 Anon., Treasures of the Norwich Museums, Norwich, 1974, up.

8 See Crispin Paine, Religious Objects in Museums: Private Lives and Public Duties, Bloomsbury, 2013 and Gretchen Buggeln et al (eds.), Religion in Museums: global and multidisciplinary perspectives, Bloomsbury Academic, 2017 and references in note 6.

9 However see the catalogue of the exhibition held at the Castle Museum: The Art of Faith: 3,500 years of art and belief edited by Andrew Moore & Margit Thofner (Philip Wilson, 2010).

10 https://www.catharijneconvent.nl

Advertisement

7 comments

  1. There are lots of examples of churches being turned into museums, but St Peter Hungate is different because it was a religion museum.

    Crispin

    Like

  2. After reading this post I got interested in what other religion museums might have closed – besides the one at Levisham described in this blog. There seem to have been two in West Wales: I think I’ve sorted them out correctly, but I’d be grateful if someone more knowledgeable could check!

    On the A475 between Newcastle Emlyn and Lampeter is Rhydowen, where the chapel was once famous as the HQ of Unitarianism in rural Wales. In 1876 it was the scene of a national scandal when the congregation and its minister William Thomas, great-uncle of Dylan Thomas, were evicted by the local landlord. Later used as a Sunday School, it became briefly a Unitarian museum. A wonderful video of the Reverend Aubrey J. Martin giving a Welsh-language tour of the collections is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZyODQG8neA.

    Some 40 miles north, on the A487 between Aberystwyth and Machynlleth, is Tre’r Ddôl. It was in the Soar Chapel there that the 1858-60 Welsh evangelical revival is said to have begun. From 1978 to 1988 the chapel was run by The National Museum of Wales as a religion museum – Yr Hen Gapel Museum. It then reverted to being a ‘bygones’ museum, run by the District Council, and closed in 1996. Am I right in thinking it was the great Geraint Jenkins who created the religion museum?

    Crispin

    Like

  3. I very much enjoyed reading about St Peter Hungate in Still a “House of God? The Redundant church as a museum”.
    My Stepfather Philip Insley was a Conservation Officer in Norwich in the 1990s and 2000s and he well understood the importance of the many wonderful churches in the city . He would always say to me that it didn’t matter what the church buildings were used for ,as long as they were cherished and appreciated .
    His memorial service was held in St Peter Parmentergate -another wonderful medieval church -now redundant -in the heart of Norwich.

    Like

    • I knew Philip. A lovely man. I used to work as a building surveyor for Norwich City Council and Philip and I would often meet to discuss works on the historic buildings including City Hall itself.
      I was saddened to hear of his passing.
      He is right, whether you are religious or not the chuches are part of this country, it’s heritage and history and we need to cherish them.
      Incidentally since leaving the council in 1999 and moving into the private sector and ultmately acting as a consultant I have worked on a small project at St Peter Hungate.
      John Haverson

      Like

  4. I’m delighted to see that an 1830 chapel in Dorchester, later a Kingdom Hall, now houses the Dorset Teddy Bear Museum.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s