Volume LVNovember 2008Number 4

Museum Celebrates Centennial
by Glenys A. Waldman, Ph.D., Senior Librarian

The Library (present Museum) during the late 1800s as ½ library, ½ museum

Home to more than 30,000 Masonic-related items, the Masonic Museum is turning a century old this year. Considering the Masonic Temple was completed in 1873 (interior by 1908) and the Library was founded in 1817, what took the Museum so long?

Before the establishment of the Museum, the librarian collected objects, especially portraits of past Grand Masters and items donated for display because they "needed a good home." The "official" founding date of the Museum, however, is 1908.

Almost every year, the Report of the Committee on Library in the Grand Lodge "Proceedings," referred to the acquisition of objects for the Museum. In 1899, Bro. George Herzog completed the decorations in the Library Hall (now the Museum). In May, George P. Rupp was appointed Librarian, thus ending a "transitional state." The Committee further stated that "Your Committee is impressed with the need of enlarged accommodations for the many visitors who spend more or less time in the Reading-Room, and it trusts that in the contemplated alterations of the Temple building, a larger Smoking Room (the present Reading Room), attached to the Library, will not be forgotten."

In 1901, the Committee stated it hoped that "In the alterations of the Temple... more space will be assigned us for a proper exhibit of these valuable reminders of the past." A year later: "The interest shown in [the 1902 Washingtoniana Exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of Brother Washington's initiation into Freemasonry] and incidentally in the smaller collection forming the nucleus of our permanent Masonic Museum, emphasizes the suggestion made heretofore by the Committee of permanent quarters for a proper display... the Library Committee is unofficially advised by the Temple Committee that efforts will be made in the ensuing year to give proper accommodations to the proposed Museum." "[I]mprovements on the first floor of the Temple" were still being completed in 1903, and the Committee hoped to hold an exhibition as soon as possible because many Masonic jewels and the George Washington apron recently had been acquired. It was also reasoned that with more space, even more visitors and donations would come to the Museum.

In 1904, the Library Committee proudly announced the construction of the steel book stacks, housing 25,000 books in the "fire-proof rooms" to the north of the Reading-Room, thus making room for museum cases, yet leaving half the room for reading. As of the writing of the 1905 Proceedings, the Committee was happy with the new "Smoking and Conversation Room." The museum cases, once "properly illuminated with electric light" satisfied the immediate need for "proper display of the many hundreds of objects of Masonic interest," but they only partially fulfilled the need. Soon thereafter, space once again became a problem.

In 1907, the Committee, of which Bro. John Wanamaker had become chair in 1906, hoped "...that the Temple Committee will allow the back corridor on the first floor to be used for Museum purposes,... which they will undertake to make the finest museum of its kind in the country." The area created by the arch and the two one-ton bronze, glass and iron doors, now the Benjamin Franklin Room, is 55 feet long, 20 feet wide and 23 feet high.

Bro. Herzog was commissioned to decorate the new Museum space, which hosted the Washingtoniana Exhibit in 1902 and the Franklin Bicentennial Exhibit in 1906. Probably due to the success of these two exhibits, and perhaps spurred by the completion of the beautiful mahogany display cases in 1908, still in use today, Bro. Wanamaker formally dedicated the Museum. Bro. Julius F. Sachse, the Librarian, became both the Librarian and Curator in 1908.

The Museum remained in that space until the early 1970s, at which time it became the Benjamin Franklin Room social hall it is today. The Museum moved back into the larger room once occupied by the Library that, in turn, shrank into the old Smoking and Conversation room. Besides those stored in the 1904 stacks, books were also placed in the Archives room - the rejuvenated coal bin in the sub-basement - in addition to countless Museum objects. Compact storage was installed in late 1994.

The Museum in the Benjamin Franklin Room (ca. 1908)

The Museum continues to collect and display new items, including the 17th century Support Our Constitution Flag, the restoration of which is expected to be complete by Flag Day, June 14, 2009. Recent exhibits include "The Initiated Eye: Secrets, Symbols, Freemasonry and the Architecture of Washington, D.C.," and the on-going William Rush sculpture display. All items in the Museum are benefiting from the recently upgraded HVAC system which controls humidity levels and ensures preservation of the interior of the building.

As part of its dedication to the fraternity and the general public, the Museum participates in cooperative and collaborative ventures with other cultural institutions and organizations throughout the Greater Philadelphia region. They hosted the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance annual meeting at the Masonic Temple in September and meetings for the 10,000+ membership of the American Association of Museums will be held here next year. As the scaffolding comes down from the exterior of the Temple, more events are being planned. One hundred years-strong, the Museum continues to preserve the history and values of Freemasonry for future Masons and others to appreciate.

The Museum is open for tours during the fall, winter and spring months on Tuesdays-Fridays, beginning at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.; on Saturdays at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and noon; or at other times through advance arrangements. Call (215) 988-1917 for more information.


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