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by Wor.Bro. MARK A. TABBERT 33


First published Oct.2002 on “The Northern Light”, Scottish Rite Freemasonry, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, USA

In 1948, the distinguished Masonic author, playwright, and past Masonic Service Association Executive Secretary, Carl Claudy, published his collection of writings in a book: "Masonic Harvest." One the book's essays, "Relics," describes the many famous and treasured Masonic historical artifacts from around the country, including numerous George Washington Masonic treasures, as well as other colonial and early American Masonic furniture books and papers. In other parts of the country he mentions Lewis' and Clark's Masonic aprons, Mark Twain's petition for membership, and the first square and compasses used in the Utah territory in 1859. To him these relics were important to "keep tradition alive" and "wield a restraining influence against those too modern minded brethren by whom "streamlining" and "modernization" would be applied to the Ancient Craft."

            Born in the horse and buggy days of 1879 and living to see the dawn of the Space Age in 1957, Claudy's generation witnessed more technological, social, and cultural changes than any other; before or since. It is no wonder then that he worried about the survival of the Craft's "ancient established usages" when governed by  "modern minded brethren." Now that we live in the 21st century we know all too well the effects of "streamlining and modernization" and new questions have arisen to the meaning and purpose of these long cherished Masonic relics.

What now, indeed, is the purpose of display cases filled with George Washington related artifacts, old aprons and jewels from long dead famous Americans or countless badges from Masonic conventions and ceremonies? Are they simply there to show past Masonic activities and enhance the grandeur and beauty of lodges? Or are they expected to impress non-Masons of the Craft's ancient heritage just as some families' display genealogy charts? Do these Masonic artifacts have real historic value? Do they teach, inspire or are they simply nice things to please the eye?

Being a proud Mason I share Bro. Claudy's reverence for these relics, but as a historian I am obliged to answer these questions and the public's curiosity over American Freemasonry. The answers I discovered resulted from nearly three years work developing "To Build and Sustain: Freemasonry in American Community" exhibition. As Claudy hoped his essay would inspire brothers to seek out and preserve their relics, it is my hope that this article will inspire brothers to preserve and present new displays of their lodges' important history.

But before new displays are presented an inventory and assessment of artifacts, photographs, and documents must be completed. Only by first knowing the available materials and how to care for them, can new displays then be built. To help this process the National Heritage Museum has just printed a new brochure titled "Caring for Your Masonic Treasures." (See sidebar.) In addition, the museum's staff is always available for direct consultation and is happy to provide other preservation and display resources.

Of the several ways to reinterpret and present Masonic history displays, I believe, the first and foremost concept is to remember Freemasonry is comprised of men. While this seem obvious, all too often grand masters' aprons or past masters jewels are displayed with no information on the men who earned them. Masonic relics are simply evidence of men's participation in the Craft. No matter how beautiful or impressive, they say nothing by themselves. They come alive, however, when we can learn about when, why, and how men used them, for they speak of lifelong friendships. Friendships that began at initiation, grew through good times and bad, and ended with an evergreen sprig at the grave.

 Whenever possible aprons and jewels should be displayed with photographs, short biographic labels and non-Masonic personal items. By taking a few minuets to write or find a photograph of a historic brother, or better yet a photograph of him with his family or in "civilian" dress, you create depth and an engaging story. Even displaying one past masters apron on tuxedoed mannequin, will attract and engage visitors far better than walls covered with anonymous framed aprons.    

            In conjunction with this new approach, Masonic displays should also contain a variety of artifacts. Rather than having cases organized by type or style, they should be grouped by person or age. History exhibits are not zoological and we should not display aprons, porcelain pitchers or jewels like species and breeds! Because today's visitors find them repetitively boring, few modern natural history museums have cases filled with every variety of duck, butterfly or snake. Rather they show a variety of animals together in their habitat--beaver, heron, trout, snake and snail all in a woodland stream setting.

Likewise, Masonic displays should group objects according to their age, such as aprons, photographs, jewels and gavels all used between say 1870 and 1900. In this way visitors can see how the Craft evolved over time and created objects according to the history of the lodge. Starting with a selection of crude frontier Masonic artifacts from the 1870s and finishing with a few expensive 1990s artifacts shows how a grand lodge or valley prospered with the territory and state.

            If, however, a lodge has more artifacts related to people than eras, then displays can be organized to create a Masonic "hall of fame." As Ralph Waldo Emerson said "There is properly no history, only biography" and through the biographies of brothers, lodge histories can be told. These individuals’ cases may show relics from his range of Masonic activities: Blue Lodge, York Rite, Scottish Rite Shrine, etc. But beyond objects, it should contain biographical labels that mention both his personal and professional achievements. Knowing a past master served in World War I, owned a barbershop, and was married with children, as he organized a Demolay chapter, established a lodge charity fund and wrote a Masonic book, does indeed teach and inspire younger generations.

            Another important point to remember is to keep exhibitions simple, factual and focused on local stories. Displays that try to tell the whole history of the Craft are doomed to fail. The endless differences in Masonic rituals, jurisdictions, rites, auxiliaries, and charities perplex non-masons, let alone 50-year brothers. If the material to display is primarily from your Scottish Rite valley, then tell the story of your valley, and not any other--not your local Blue Lodge, Eastern Star Chapter, or Shrine. At most, display a chart of all the Masonic bodies so visitors might see the scope of the Masonic family.

            Furthermore, stick to the facts and relics of local history. Do not mention the Medieval Knight Templars unless you live in France and own a suit of armor. If you live in Wisconsin, then let Virginia tell George Washington’s story and New Mexico tell Kit Carson’s. Rather be a proud “Badger” and tell the story of the Ringling Brothers in Baraboo, or Governor Tommy Thompson in Madison.

            When creating display labels and graphic information, remember to write a story and not an editorial or an advertisement. It is unnecessary to address the various controversial issues that have dogged the fraternity for centuries. If visitors want answers to such issues then provide a rack of Masonic Service Association brochures. They are easily obtainable and already written.

While it is proper to be proud of the fraternity, circumscribe mentioning Freemasonry’s wonderful social and charitable activities. A few well-placed notices of exciting events or great charitable statistics over time, is enough to impress. A quiet voice often resonates more than a shout. But remain proud of the fraternity’s tenets, principles and mission. Intelligent prospective candidates want to know Freemasonry’s purpose. If you are too embarrassed to clearly state them, then let the actions of historical masons prove them. Otherwise, men seeking admission will look elsewhere for morality, brotherly love, and truth.

 Lastly, use common terminology that everyone can understand. While it is great fun to list every exalted Masonic title or incorporate phrases from the ritual in display labels, they easily confuse non-masons. But if you choose to use the title Worshipful Master, then do not be afraid to explain its origin and meaning. When in doubt give you display labels to a bright intelligent teenager. If he or she can understand them, then others will too.

While American and Freemasonry has changed since Carl Claudy published his essay his conclusion is remains true. "… every Masonic antiquity, wherever kept and displayed, wields also a … reverence for, the ancient laws and principles which makes Freemasonry what it is, and not something else."  Today there are literally thousands of clubs, groups, and associations for men to join. While Freemasonry is the parent of most of them it remains distinct. No other organization can claim such universality, generous charity and, most important, rich history. For too long masons have tried to be like others, but through a proper application of a little wisdom, strength, and beauty, displays of our “relics” can encourage others to become like us-- brothers.