In late September the Freemasons’ Hall took part in ‘Open House London’, an annual event celebrating architecture and design throughout London. The Hall, which acts as the United Grand Lodge of England’s (UGLE) headquarters, is typically open to public visitors, but marked the Open House event with additional displays, tours, and exhibits. As chance would have it, I happened to stumble upon the Freemasons’ Hall during this event and couldn’t resist going along. It was certainly worth the visit – and I left pondering (as I often do) objects and symbols.
If you’ve spent only a few minutes listening to me talk about my research, you’ll know that I’m fascinated by esotericism – more specifically, ‘secret’ knowledge and rituals for the ‘initiated’. Freemasonry serves as an example of this, featuring a series of specific rituals and ceremonies which are intended for Freemasons only. While ‘secrecy’ has often been controversial in the history of Freemasonry, Freemasons themselves are demonstrating increasing engagement with the wider public. As David Staples, the Chief Executive and Grand Secretary of the UGLE, tweeted, “[the Open House event] is only the start of our drive to show the public what modern Freemasonry really stands for”.
Accordingly, this approach was immediately apparent in the Hall itself. Displays such as ‘Inclusivity and Tolerance’ point to the ways in which Freemasonry has attempted to broaden its approach to members, featuring information on women’s lodges formed in the late 1800s, the welcoming of members with disabilities since the 1700s, and how members are encouraged to pursue their own faith.
My eye was also caught by a great display of ‘everyday’ Freemasonry, featuring objects and memorabilia through which members can display and express their status as Freemasons.
Alternatively, the exhibit also acknowledged the hostility towards Freemasonry during its history (such as the anti-Masonic literature in the Turbulent Century display), and the ways in which its use of esoteric objects and symbols have contributed to suspicion from critics. I was particularly struck by a small display towards the end of the exhibit. It interestingly didn’t contain any Masonic objects or regalia. Rather it contained a series of badges from a variety of sources, ranging from the political (“Don’t Blame Me, I Voted Remain”, “I’m a Monster Raving Loony”, and CND), to Up’s running “SQUIRREL!” gag.
The display was accompanied by the following statement:
WE ALL WEAR BADGES
A jewel, a medal, a badge, a lapel pin, a patch. Why do we wear them? What do they mean?
All through history we have worn symbols – imposed upon us to denote status, awarded for achievements, or simply by choice.
A badge is a simple piece of metal, gemstone, cloth, enamel or plastic, but it carries a message – a message that can be intended for everybody, or something only for those already in the know.
Do they help define our identity, or do they merely proclaim it?
Why would you wear a badge?”
This extract is striking for a number of reasons. It is a provocative series of statements and questions – challenging visitors to question their previous perceptions of Freemasonry’s esoteric imagery and rituals. It also urges them to consider their own use of symbols – whether they demonstrate beliefs, their professions, or express their fandom – and how this may not be entirely dissimilar from the symbols of Freemasonry. Beyond this, it points to the way in which Masonic symbols can carry a message “only for those already in the know”. As one Freemason told me, Freemasonry “is not a secret society, it’s a society with secrets”, a subtle yet significant distinction for Freemasons. Of course, the rituals of Masonic ceremonies are hardly secret in the public domain due to the exposés from undercover writers, or information leaked online from former Masons (Mahmud, 2013). For contemporary Freemasonry, however, this seems to be of little concern. Rather the focus is on public engagement – increasing understanding of what Freemasonry is and what it contributes to wider society. The Open House event at the Freemasons’ Hall serves as an interesting example of an esoteric movement engaging with wider society by displaying its material culture, symbols, and history, whilst simultaneously attempting to continue protecting details intended for the initiated Freemason. To answer the question posed by the badge display, “do [symbols] help define our identity, or do they merely proclaim it?”, the answer is both. Freemasonry continues to be defined by its regalia, distinctive symbols, and hidden ceremonies, which in themselves proclaim Masonic identity, purpose, and worldviews.
Mahmund, L. (2013) ‘The Profane Ethnographer: Fieldwork with a Secretive Organisation’, in Garsten C. and Nyqvist, A. (eds), Organisational Anthropology: Doing Ethnography in and among Complex Organisations, London, Pluto Press,pp. 189-207.