In our Grand Jurisdiction of Ontario, we have a remarkable Masonic heritage that is represented in every Lodge, whether it is over 200 years old, or was founded within the last 25 years. No matter the age of your Lodge, all have treasures and history worth preserving.
PRESERVING YOUR MASONIC HISTORY
Given the numerous day to day challenges in maintaining a Lodge, some people may ask if the preservation of Lodge records and artifacts is worth the effort. The short answer is yes of course, it is one of our responsibilities as Masons.
Your Lodge is a collection of men, whose collective experiences came together and made the Lodge what it is today. Your Lodge’s Masonic artifacts and documents are your direct links to the past. If your Lodge loses its key connections to the Masons who have gone before us, you will be doomed to an incomplete understanding of your heritage; you will have lost some of the tools you need to guide you in the challenges of the future.
What to preserve?
Most Lodges would logically say that the Warrant plus the Minute Books and other records are items that must be preserved. To reinforce that important point, let us think about what we have already lost. We have many Lodges in Ontario that are over 150 to 200 years of age, but information from those early days is often sketchy. Niagara No.2 in Niagara on the Lake is a good example. Most of the Lodge’s records were lost when the town was destroyed in the War of 1812, while other records and artifacts were burned in a fire in 1860. Think of all the true stories and lessons for the future that vanished in that destruction.
A legend from that War dates to the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, near Niagara Falls in July of 1814. On the evening before the Battle, the British and Canadians supposedly invited their Masonic counterparts in the American Army to attend a Lodge meeting in the British camp. About 50 years later, the Lodge jewel of a Treasurer, in a distinctly early 1800’s American pattern, was found on the former battlefield. While this does not prove that the Lodge meeting took place, it does make one wonder. Sadly, no records from that meeting were kept, or if they were, they have not survived. Just imagine the lessons that could be learned from that particular Lodge meeting, if we had the records to prove it really happened.
The Secretary of Lodge No.6 In Kingston during the War of 1812 was a Mason who looked to the future. He wrote the following words in his entry in the Minute Book for the year 1813. As you will note, he realized that he was writing history for future generations.
“Recorded for the information of succeeding Lodges, that owing to the unpleasant situation of public affairs and various inconveniences occasioned by the War, Lodge No.6 Ancient York Masons have been unavoidably prevented from meeting in regular form during the months of May to November of this present year. Dated December 2, 1813.”
Norfolk No.10 Lodge in Simcoe had a problem in that they had lost some of their earlier 19th century Minute Books. However they did discover a cache of rough notes taken by the Secretary from that period. The Lodge sorted these notes by date, had them professionally treated by a paper conservator, and then bound them. While they are not the missing Minute Books, they nevertheless give a good account of the history of that Lodge. This was an expensive process for the Lodge, but it was one of the priority areas they identified. Without this professional care, the Lodge would have lost even this record of their distant past.
Some newer Lodges may think that since they are not over a century in age, that they are not historic. Keep in mind that history is a continuum and that Masonry is a living and evolving institution. Masonic or Lodge history can be as recent as last year or last month, or yesterday, depending on the event. If we neglect to preserve history now, it will be unavailable forever to our descendants. My advice to the newer Lodges is that as a young Lodge, you have the opportunity to do it properly from the very start. For example, when you hold a special event, keep a file of the key documents and supporting items such as a dinner programme. You can lay the foundation now, for a comprehensive Masonic history that will grow into the future.
The artifacts you hold in your Lodge make your Lodge unique. At Hazeldean Lodge in Kanata, Union Jack is on display that was carried at the Battle of Dieppe in 1942 by one of the members, who was then serving in the Canadian Army. Another example is an original painted Trestle Board from 1839 in a Lodge in Eastern Ontario. These Masonic treasures are unique, they can never be replaced, and deserve our attention as preservation priorities.
How to preserve?
Step 1. Set priorities: No organization can afford to do everything. The hoarding of low level priorities will eventually overwhelm the resources needed to maintain the higher level priorities. All museums have some sort of assessment programme, whereby the content of the collections are reviewed to determine what should be kept and what can be deaccessioned. The resources of the museum are then directed in order of priority towards the important items.
A logical way of determining priorities for preservation of Lodge materials is to consider a worst case scenario. Assume that your Lodge and everything it contains has just been hit by a massive flood. You only have a small budget and other limited resources available to rescue and conserve selected items. Ask yourself these basic questions.
a) What are the items, in order of priority, that are essential to the recovery of your Lodge to full operating condition after a disaster?
b) What are the items that are desirable, but not essential to this task?
Step 2. Keep an inventory of historic items and record the data: All too often we hear of Lodge artifacts that have gone missing over the years. Or, the artifact may be in the Lodge collection, and seem to be of some sort of historical significance, but only Brother X knew anything about it and he passed to the G.L.A. a few years ago. We can’t fix all the problems of the past, but we can start now to record what we can before any more information is lost.
Most Lodges now have a Lodge Historian, and this can be a key part of the role of that officer. He does not have to be a professional historian do do a good job. All that you need to start is somebody with a general interest and a ledger book where the item can be described, its location noted, and a short description given. An inventory on a home computer is a nice tool, if it is available. So is a digital camera, to document the artifact photographically. Digital photos are a big help in recovery if the artifact is ever stolen or lost.
It is guaranteed that if you do this work at even a basic level, you will be pleasantly surprised at what may be lurking in deep storage. Here is one example:
Granite Chapter of Royal Arch Masons in Carleton Place was consumed by fire in 1910 and the Masonic Temple was rebuilt in 1911. Any Royal Arch Mason will recognize the significance of the keystone in Royal Arch ritual. One Saturday morning about 2 years ago, during a cleanup of a back storage closet, in one filthy cardboard box, was found a marble keystone that was scorched and cracked, with chunks missing from its top. Nobody alive today realized that we had this object. It turned out that it was the keystone from the Chapter, that had gone through the fire a century ago. Today, we have the keystone on display during appropriate parts of the ritual and use it as a tool in our Masonic education. It is sometimes used it to discuss the story of the symbolic Masonic bird, the Phoenix, that is consumed by fire, rises again from its own ashes.
Step 3. Adopt an historic resource conservation programme: This step is like asking how high is up, because it can become very complex given the nature of the historic items at your Lodge. However, it does not always have to be complex or costly, and any attention paid to this at all will be well worth the time and money.
Light is an important element of our Masonic ritual. However, direct light, specifically ultra violet rays, is a serious enemy of many paper and cloth items. Framed Lodge Warrants and certificates, photos, banners, works of art, as well as antique regalia are often seen proudly displayed in Ontario Lodges. This is a great way to share your history with Lodge members and visitors, but over a period of time damage will result in the form of severe fading, if care is not taken. Iron gall ink was widely used on documents from the 19th century and is particularly susceptible to fading on exposure to light.
While light is a serious threat, it is also one of the simpler problems to solve. Items on display in our Lodges have survived so long because much of the time the lights are off and the window shades are drawn. It is s simple task to move any items out of direct sunlight. If this is not possible, ultra violet resistant coatings can be applied over window glass. It is also possible to have items framed for display with ultra violet inhibiting plexiglass instead of regular glass. (While you are re-framing a document, it is also good to use acid free matts to the project as further protection for your document.)
Another concern is with modern fluorescent light tubes. They emit high levels of ultra violet, but one can purchase and easily install covers that will block most of the ultra violet.
Other preventive maintenance is just good common sense. It is beyond the scope of this discussion to get into technical details, but excessive humidity in the summer, excessive dry air in the winter can damage your artifacts. However, this sort of environmental damage can be easily controlled with modern de-humidifiers in summer, and furnaces with humidifiers in the winter. The major concern is to avoid abrupt changes in temperature and humidity.
If you do have high priority objects that require serious attention, it is well worth the money to call in the professionals. Norfolk No.10 raised the money to hire a professional paper conservator as mentioned earlier to treat the Secretary’s notes. Their conservator also re-bound the Minute Books to ensure that no pages would be lost. This Lodge also raised funds and hired a professional art conservator to treat two original 19th century portraits of our first Grand Master, M.W. Bro. W. M. Wilson. While a good deal of money was spent, the Lodge has now guaranteed that their heritage items will survive well into the 21st century and beyond.
Consider Some Museum Concepts:
Today as Masons we no longer regard everything related to our Lodges as secret. As M. W. Bro. D. H. Mumby often advised during his term as Grand Master, “let your light shine.” This direction has opened up another way to promote the preservation of Lodge treasures. Some of our older Lodges are rich in historical Masonic treasures. Niagara No.2 contains many treasures. Fortunately, the Lodge had a spare room and was able to dedicate it to a museum, which was officially opened in 1981 as part of the restoration plans for the Lodge building. This museum continues to provide a valuable teaching resource to Masons and to the local community during open house events.
St. Lawrence Lodge in Southampton has gone a step further. They did not have the luxury of a space for an in-house Lodge museum, but are lucky to have a first rate local museum in the community, the Bruce County Museum & Archives. They developed a temporary exhibit on local Freemasonry for their 150th anniversary in 2011. This project was an interesting precedent for Lodges in other communities to study.
Pioneer villages in Ontario, in cooperation with Grand Lodge, local Masonic Lodges, and Heritage Lodge, have added Masonic Lodges to their restorations so visitors can experience Masonic history directly. When you are traveling, you can see these museum quality restorations at Black Creek Pioneer Village in Toronto, Upper Canada Village near Morrisburg, Fanshawe Pioneer Village near London, and most recently, the Essex County Transportation Museum near Windsor.
Grand Lodge in Hamilton also holds a collection of historic Masonic objects. These are exhibited in glass cases and are available for Masons to view whenever they visit Grand Lodge. However, we have a lot of work to do to turn the collection into a first rate museum display. It all takes time.
The Grand Lodge collection is in Hamilton, so not all Masons can visit on a regular basis. The Library, Museum and Archives Committee recognizes this challenge and is working on the development of a digital museum that will be presented on our web site. In due course, we hope to place a photo and caption of key objects from the Grand Lodge collection in this digital museum display. We would also like to ask Ontario Lodges with historic items if they would think about sharing photos of their artifacts in this digital exhibit. (Please be assured that we are aware of security issues, and would respect such concerns by NOT divulging the location of these items if that information on line would create a risk.)
In all these museum examples, the important point to make is that awareness is a key early step in any preservation project. As Masons, we sometimes become complacent about the historical value of artifacts and documents in our Lodges. In addition, the general public, unaware of Masonic rituals, cannot be expected to understand the significance of our artifacts and documents, unless we give them some help. In both cases, a museum concept in the Lodge goes a long ways to helping spread the word about the significance of our Masonic history and heritage.
When should we do all this?
The process takes time, but much good work can be done on small budgets, if we have dedicated people to carry out the work. Please take some time to have another look at the objects stored or displayed in your Lodge, you may find some local treasures worthy of further attention. Any progress, no matter how modest at the start, will be worthwhile.
The concept of the preservation of Masonic treasures can be a fascinating and fulfilling contribution to Freemasonry in general. If we can assist a Lodge with advice or ideas for preservation options, please feel free to contact us and we will do whatever we can to help.
The time to start is now, before anything else is lost forever. Your descendants will thank you for your good work in the years to come. Remember the foresight of that Lodge Secretary in Kingston, back in 1813, who wrote these words.
“Recorded for the information of succeeding Lodges.”