New Museum Opening This October To Explore Encounters, Experiences And Expressions of Faith in Britain

It’s been 10 years in the making, and countless challenges have been encountered along the way, but we’ve kept the faith, and now it’s finally ready – the Faith Museum opens to the public on 7 October 2023.

The Faith Museum explores the myriad ways in which faith has shaped lives and communities across Britain through rarely seen objects, national treasures, personal testimonies and contemporary commissions. The museum sits at the heart of The Auckland Project’s unique cultural destination in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, which includes historic buildings, art galleries, gardens, extensive parkland and a heritage railway.

The Faith Museum is part of the wider restoration and redevelopment of The Auckland Project, which has been made possible with a £12.4m grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, which was raised by National Lottery players. Leading visitors on a journey through British history, the museum comprises a series of dynamic gallery spaces with an active programme of rotating displays and temporary exhibitions.

The ground floor traces a path through 6,000 years of faith, beginning in the Neolithic period with the powerfully tactile Gainford Stone and ending in the year 2000. The thematic displays will feature objects on loan from 50 national and local institutions and private lenders which complement The Auckland Project’s own collection. The objects are sometimes beautiful, sometimes high-status, often enigmatic, and often poignant; they are witnesses which cut through to deep reverences and customs which speak directly through time to us today.

The upper floor of the museum will house a diverse programme of temporary exhibitions and installations, reflecting contemporary issues and timeless ideas. The galleries will open with a display of works by ten contemporary British artists, offering their individual perspectives on faith today.

For many, faith is associated with a power bigger than ourselves. The challenge of defining the nature and impact of something seemingly intangible is a foundation of the museum, which does not seek to force a definition of faith but rather invites visitors to consider how people across history have described and demonstrated it. This style of presenting objects is suggestive – often powerfully so – but the power of suggestion is located within the viewer, who is not directed towards any particular interpretation or conclusion. Local faith leaders, academic specialists and community groups have provided thoughts and perspectives throughout the development process; the museum aims to welcome visitors from all walks of life, whether they identify as religious, spiritual, or neither.

Walking through galleries housed in the 14th-century Scotland Wing of Auckland Castle, a never-before-displayed object found less than a mile from the Castle is one of the smallest and most remarkable items on show: the Binchester Ring. Excavated in 2014 at the Roman Fort Vinovium, this extraordinary silver ring with carved carnelian stone featuring images of an anchor and fish is rare early evidence of Christianity in Britain.

Other highlights in these galleries include:
● An early example of evidence of Jewish communities in Britain seen in an extraordinary object from the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, the 13th-century Bodleian Bowl: this decorated bronze vessel is inscribed with the name of Joseph, son of Rabbi Yechiel, a famous scripture scholar of Paris. Joseph lived in Colchester and may have given this bowl to the Jewish congregation there before leaving for the Holy Land.
● A copy of William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament from 1536, one of only a small number to have survived. The publication of Tyndale’s Bible was a key moment in English history, helping spread the ideas of the Reformation and serving as the basis for the King James Version.
● A set of 20th-century prayer beads owned by Lord Headley, believed to be the first Briton to have legitimately completed the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, having converted to Islam. Upstairs, visitors will encounter contemporary expressions of faith in a series of temporary exhibition displays. Dominating the Great Gallery upstairs, with its high-pitched ceiling, is a dramatic installation by Mat Collishaw, specially created for the space. This large-scale work is complemented by more intimate pieces in the adjacent galleries, inviting us to consider how faith can be both awe-inspiring and public, yet personal and private. In a gallery looking out across the Castle’s walled garden, a collection of paintings by artist Roger Wagner depict

Biblical scenes in modern landscapes in a poetic juxtaposition.

The final gallery space invites visitors to reflect on three central questions present throughout the museum: Where do I belong? How do I live? and Am I alone? Among the artists featured are the Singh Twins, known for their amalgamation of Eastern and Western art, and Khadija Saye, the British-Gambian photographer whose work was being exhibited at the Venice Biennale’s Diaspora Pavilion when her life was tragically ended in the Grenfell Tower fire.

Jonathan Ruffer, Founder of The Auckland Project, says: “The Faith Museum turned out to be the hardest piece of our jigsaw. We have tried to tell stories which put into context 6,000 years of human endeavour and the restlessness of the human spirit.”

Clare Baron, Head of Exhibitions at The Auckland Project, comments: “We look forward to opening the doors of the Faith Museum to visitors this autumn. The objects and contemporary artworks on display tell the story of how people in Britain have expressed their faith throughout history, often in a very personal way. I’d like to thank all the lenders, artists, advisors and funders who have helped to create a space for us all to reflect on and discuss what faith means to us.”

Eilish McGuinness, Chief Executive at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, says: “It is such uplifting news that the Faith Museum will be open to the public in October, allowing an exploration of the heritage of faith in the UK spanning 6,000 years. We are proud to have supported the creation of the museum, as part of our wider investment in The Auckland Project, thanks to money raised by National Lottery players. We believe in the power of heritage to ignite the imagination, offer joy and inspiration, and to build pride in place and connection to the past – and this museum will provide that inspiration from October when the
public will uncover enthralling heritage stories in these beautiful spaces.”

The 740sqm museum has seen extensive conservation work undertaken on the historically significant Grade I listed Scotland Wing of Auckland Castle, with refurbishments overseen by Purcell architects. The new purpose-built extension designed by Níall McLaughlin Architects takes the form of a medieval tithe barn and follows the line of the original perimeter wall of the castle. Conceived as a sacred storehouse, the monolithic, pitched roof building was constructed using Cop Crag sandstone, local to the North East, and the same as used at Durham Cathedral.

Programming will be a central part of the museum going forward, with events, talks and workshops enabling yet more stories to be told and more perspectives to be explored. Educational sessions for schools will ensure children of all ages are able to have their learning enriched by inspirational visits.

The Faith Museum is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Jerusalem Trust.

By: William McCrossan

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