With a new director and fresh ideas, the Museum of the Order of St John is entering a new era
The Gatehouse at the Museum of the Order of St John is one of Clerkenwell’s most picturesque sights. With a gothic arch and stern crenellations, dating from the early 16th century, it comes across as part-castle, part-church – and in a way, it’s both.
In the museum, you’ll find out about the old religious military order of St John, the Hospitallers who looked after pilgrims to Jerusalem in the 11th century, and the charity St John Ambulance, formed in the 19th century in their name – bringing the eight-pointed St John cross on a black background up to date, and capping a millennium’s worth of history.
With all this,you’d think the Museum of the Order of St John would be on every tourist’s list, but it remains a bit of a secret and has, one might say, hidden its light under a bushel. Also, like many visitor attractions, it has suffered from being mothballed during Covid. The intention is now to lure more visitors and really put it on the map.
Anna Mason,who has been the museum’s director since last autumn, has several initiatives afoot that will put the museum centre stage in London, as well as link it up with the soon-to-be- relocated Museum of London as part of a vibrant Clerkenwell culture cluster.
“We want to present a more open face for the museum and the collections,” says Anna. “We’ve got 60,000 objects but currently only one per cent on display at any time. We’re planning newways to share more of the collection and greater opportunities to experience the whole site,including the church, the garden, and historic interiors.”
The church Anna refers to is the Priory Church in the northern part of St John Square. It contains some fine paintings and just outside is a peaceful place for reflection, including a small community library and soon, opportunities for local people to get involved in gardening. Here also is the museum’s biggest hitter: the atmospheric and sepulchral Norman crypt. “It is one of the few medieval buildings that survived the Fire of London,” says Anna. “It’s recently had a new lighting scheme and looks stunning.” One slight drawback is Clerkenwell Road,which bisected St John’s Square in the 1870s, separating the museum’s various parts.“There are plans to rethink how we use some of the spaces and open up more of the buildings to the public,” says Anna.“It’s one of our ambitions over the next few years is to create a more coherent site and to link-up the gateway, the church and green spaces.”
Anyhow this month with the museum’s consciousness-raising in mind, several new events and attractions are on offer. Firstly, there are two tours. “One is called ‘St John Ambulance: A Victorian Masterpiece’ and it’s a history of first aid and the charity,” says Anna. “It explores the way that ordinary people have been involved in delivering St John’s mission and looks at the Victorian interiors as well as the objects in the gallery.” Then there’s a tour of the medieval history of the site, an aspect that Anna says has always been “really popular. In this tour visitors start at the Gate and end up in the 12th century crypt.”
Also in April, the museum is to launch an ‘escape room’ – the popular game where participants find a way to get out of a room using clues and solving puzzles. This particular escape room is given additional heft by the fact that it’s going to be in the Council Chamber, a room of enormous grandeur where one might expect to meet the periwigged likes of Dr Johnson. It’s in the Gatehouse, which, although a medieval structure, was acquired by the Order in the 19th century and had an internal Victorian makeover by John Oldrid Scott with massive splendour: all heraldry, stained glass and wood carvings.
“An amazing thing about the Council Chamber is that it is where The Gentleman’s Magazine started,” says Anna. This, said by some historians to be the first print magazine in the world, was set up at a time that it was illegal to report on Parliamentary debate. The magazine’s reporters wrote dispatches using code that readers had to crack – now to be the theme of the escape room.
The museum has long been community-oriented and the family programme is free. The team have recently started running ‘relaxed’ openings,called Seacole’s Sessions, for families who need a quieter environment including children with autism. This summer will see the launch of a new under-5s programme. Theatre will arrive at the church on the 10 May, with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night performed by the HandleBards. Popular bite-size lunchtime talks called Talk & Tea are returning, when visitors can pop in on their lunch break to listen to a 10-minute talk about something in the collection. There will be lectures and quiz nights too.
But there’s something else working for the museum at the moment – the connection with St John Ambulance. “Since Covid awareness of St John Ambulance has never been higher,” says Anna. “The vaccination volunteers programme was huge, for example.” This year the charity celebrates 100 years of its work with young people and has launched a new programme called NHS Cadets to help those aged 14–18 explore roles in healthcare.
“We can build on that awareness and help people understand what the relationship is between our buildings, the historic collec- tion and the wider charity,” she says. “The new tour really brings out some of the human stories of this incredible international volunteer organisation that started here in Clerkenwell.”
There’s obviously pomp and ceremony, too. Every year on 24 June, St John’s Day, there’s a stately procession from the Priory Church to St Paul’s Cathedral, and as St John is a Royal Order of Chivalry, it has honours and awards signed off by the Queen herself, for services to humanity, including awards for life-saving and organ donation. And, promises Anna, the museum doesn’t shy away from thorny discussions of conflict in the days of the Crusades, with which the Order is historically associated. “It’s difficult subject matter but we have valuable university partnerships that the museum has built up and help open up the collections for research and debate,” she says. “There’s no glorification. We’re one of a few places where schools, for example, can come in and handle actual Crusader-era objects and discuss the issues they raise.” At the museum a millennium’s worth of history can be, quite literally, within our grasp.
The Museum of the Order of St John is on the ground floor of St John’s Gate and is open Wed–Sat, 10am– 5pm, St John’s Gate, St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell, London EC1M 4DA
Entry is free and pre-booking not required. The church and crypt and the historic rooms upstairs at St John’s Gate can only be visited on guided tours.
To find details of all the new tours and attractions at the museum see the website at museumstjohn.org.uk