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British Catholic Material Culture 1538-1829

Sharing hidden histories for today’s communities

This Research Group considers the art and material culture of British Roman Catholics in the British Isles and in exile during the ‘Penal period’, i.e. from the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s to Catholic Emancipation in 1829.  It aims to investigate how such collections can be understood and shared more widely, and their benefits to audiences today.

Our research and discussions will concentrate on the following areas:

  1. Collections: How, why, where and by whom have collections of Catholic material culture been formed and preserved in the UK; who cares for them now? Many of these collections are located at an intersection between the public and private and include sensitive material such as consecrated objects, often in continued ritual use, relics, human remains and historic textiles.
  2. Audiences, engagement and interpretation: Who and where are the audiences for such material today, and how can interest and engagement be increased? What stories can it tell, and who might benefit from hearing them?
  3. The 2029 Bicentenary: Is the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act something worth celebrating nationally and how could BAN members and institutions lead this?  How Catholic material culture might be used to tell wider stories about the subsequent reforms of the 1820s-30s and their impact on democracy, equality, human rights, and British identity.

The artistic culture of Britain’s Catholic minorities is under-researched and under-represented.  As a substantial and diverse British minority (roughly 10%), the Catholic community of today is also under-represented in museum displays and collections.  Some collections of important Catholic heritage, such as monasteries, convents and training colleges faced with closure, are at risk and deserve attention from the wider heritage community.  Where British Catholic material is held by public museums, it may be little understood.

Most British Catholic collections are little known, documented or visited.  Outside public museums and large cities, they rarely employ museum professionals and there is currently no formal network for advice.  The Research Group aims to provide networking opportunities and open up dialogue with the wider BAN membership, enabling members to explore good practice and public access in comparative areas.

The Catholic Material Culture group is convened by Amina Wright, Dr Tessa Murdoch and Claire Marsland.

Activity in 2023

Our first event, Sacred Textiles at Arundel Castle focused on Collections.  The day combined three papers on the preservation and re-purposing of objects, particularly vestments, with close study of silver and vestments at Arundel Castle as a case study of a family collection over three centuries.   

Addressing the second research question, the group made a two-day visit to Ushaw and The Auckland Project for the seminar Interpreting Catholic Material Culture for Today’s Audiences. Alongside the visits, we heard honest appraisals of several recent successes in exhibitions, audience engagement, learning and marketing. 

An online workshop, Current Studies in Curating Catholic Material Culture, considered aspects of collections, their formation, custody and interpretation through the work of three current PhD researchers and a report on the management of archives of Catholic religious institutes.   

Each event has included time for discussion of the research questions, with informal networking and discussion prioritised at in-person events during regular breaks. 

Further research 

It has become clear that this is a huge subject: this year’s activities are potentially just the beginning of a much larger study and output. 

Addressing our second question, a further online workshop for the end of February on the theme “Why Catholic material culture matters” will look at the lived experience of British Catholic communities today. 

Two additional half-day online workshops and two study days will focus on questions that have arisen during 2023, including: 

  • Ethical questions around dispersal, display and handling of consecrated objects and relics 
  • Finding a common language: demystifying collections and decoding jargon 
  • Why do these stories and objects matter today? 

We plan to produce a resource introducing curators to these themes, citing examples of good practice we have learned about and giving links for further information. 

Image: ‘Faith Underground’ display at the Faith Museum, Bishop Auckland. Image courtesy of Claire Marsland 

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