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We’ve all had the experience—or at least dreamed of it—of crawling through the attic or basement and discovering a hidden treasure. For many California Masons, whose lodges have histories going back to the founding of the state, that Antiques Roadshow fantasy isn’t a fantasy at all. From centuries-old aprons and officer’s jewels to paintings, ornaments, and documents, Masonic lodges can be a treasure trove of curiosities. But what are we supposed to actually do with this stuff?

That’s the question at the heart of the 11th International Conference on Freemasonry, taking place April 8, 2023, at the University of California Los Angeles. The annual event, presented by the Grand Lodge of California, is an exploration of that vast collection of material culture—the technical term for all that “stuff.” What should lodges do with it? How do we know what’s valuable and what isn’t? And how do these items, from bibles to regalia to aides de mémoire, help tell the larger story of Freemasonry? 

The academic study of material history and how it can deepen our understanding of historical events is an important part of the profession’s most dynamic area of growth: public history. Scholarship and experience demonstrate that most people outside the academy take in more information if it’s presented alongside objects, music, images, and other aspects of material culture. As sources of both historical fascination and material culture, Masonic lodges exist at the very nexus of this discipline.

11th Annual International conference on FreemasonrySusan Mitchell SommersThis year’s conference is being co-chaired by Susan Mitchell Sommers, a Professor of History in the School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Saint Vincent College and by Margaret Jacob, a Professor of Research in the History Department at UCLA. Margaret will talk about “Current Masonic Research: the role of the material culture” and will pull apart several questions related to Masonry and other fraternal material cultures. Among the expected speakers are:

Mark Dennis
Curator of the Museum of Freemasonry, London
“The Material Culture of Freemasonry: Not a Thing Apart from the World”

For many Masons, objects related to the craft have special significance or meaning. And for outsiders, they may appear strange or unknowable. And yet viewed through the lens of material culture, Masonic objects owe a great deal to the culture they are brought into—and in which they continue to exist. They are not, then, a “thing apart” from the outside world at all, but a rich resource for researchers of all kinds.

Speaker bio: Mark Dennis is the curator of the Museum of Freemasonry in London. He has published research in several books, including Curating the Great War (Routledge, 2022). He was previously curator of the HM Customs and Excise Museum and is a freelance heritage consultant. 

Leigh Ann Gardner
Public history expert and author
“Obeyed the Last Summons and Entered the Grand Lodge Above”: Fraternal Cemeteries as Material Culture

For centuries, the fraternal bonds created by groups like the Masons extended beyond a member’s life. That’s clear through the rich burial rites and benefits that many fraternal groups offered to members as a benefit of membership, and the elaborate cemeteries they created to bury their dead. These cemeteries tell their own stories—about fraternalism in general and about the lodges that organized them. What function did they serve to their community? How did they portray fraternalism within cemeteries? And why would groups dedicated to protecting their private rituals establish cemeteries open to the public?

Speaker bio:
Leigh Ann Gardner is a historian with an interest in documenting African American history and benevolent and fraternal groups, particularly around Tennessee. She was featured in the documentary television program “A Time of Joining,” and recently released a book on the topic, To Care for the Sick and Bury the Dead: African American Lodges and Cemeteries in Tennessee (Vanderbilt University Press, 2022).

Adam Kendall
Executive Director, Oakland Scottish Rite Historical Foundation
“Listening to the Secret and Silent”

The vexing problem for many professional and non-academic historians when confronted with Masonic artifacts is how these often-overlooked sources might be examined and interpreted to break through the layers of hearsay, local legend, and the absence of provenance. How can they be used to reconstruct a historical record? Moreover, how can we translate that history, once recovered, into a useful narrative that will instruct and invigorate a genuine interest from the organization and the public? Drawing on examples found inside the 1927 Oakland Scottish Rite Temple, Kendall will demonstrate how these forgotten treasures can assist the budding Masonic historian with their collection.

Speaker bio: Adam Kendall is a historian and executive director of the Oakland Scottish Rite Historical Foundation, and former collections manager for the Henry Wilson Coil Library and Museum of Freemasonry. A past master of San Francisco’s Phoenix No. 144 and a former master of the Northern California Research Lodge, Adam is also a full member of Quatuor Coronati No. 2076 (English Constitution), as well as editor of Heredom, produced by the Scottish Rite Research Society. He has been published in several academic journals related to the study of Masonic history.

Aimee Newell
Director of Collections and Exhibitions, Museum of the American Revolution
“Expressing Brotherhood and Nationhood Through Symbols: Masonic Material Culture in the United States”

In the early days of American independence, Freemasonry offered a source of images that clearly resonated with the new nation’s values of equality and liberty. Freemasonry’s visual language continued to adapt as the nation grew and evolved, helping establish its own cultural identity. During the “golden age” of fraternal groups, Freemasonry became inexorably intertwined with American society and culture—a two-way street in was inspired by the fashions and styles of the surrounding culture, while also influencing that culture.

Speaker bio: Aimee E. Newell is director of collections and exhibitions at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. She has also worked as a curator at the Nantucket Historical Association, Old Sturbridge Village Museum, and at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library in Lexington, Mass. She has written and spoken widely about the material culture of Freemasonry and fraternalism, and is author of The Badge of a Freemason: Masonic Aprons from the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library and coauthor of Curiosities of the Craft: Treasures from the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts Collection.