As you may have read in Melanie’s significance post , a key component of a significance assessment is understanding the provenance of individual items, or the collection as a whole. But what happens when there isn’t as much documentation as you might like? How can you understand what you are looking at, where it comes from, what it means, assign a degree of significance, or make use of it in any way other than telling the most generic, commonplace histories? The simple truth is that you can’t, and you are going to need to find out more! In this blog I’d like to share a particular experience in object research that took an item from barely being understood to… well.. let’s just say something more than that!
I came across this chair while undertaking a significance assessment recently. It’s a well-crafted timber chair, stately perhaps, but not overly elaborate or ornate. The height, accentuated by its pointed top and acorn shaped finials, gives this chair a real sense of presence in the room compared with other more regular seats. It seems that while it can fulfil its purpose as a place to sit, there is more to it than just that. The object label simply reads “Masonic Chair”.
None of the museum records available to me could provide any elaboration about this particular chair. By the rationale and logic of the Museum’s collection policy, it may have come from the local Freemasons lodge. But a staff member mentioned that they thought it may have come from a Masonic Temple in Pomona (a nearby town in another local government area). All very interesting, but what was its history and how did it get to be in this collection?
First things first, I had to make sure that the chair was indeed Masonic. Other benevolent societies that are sometimes confused with Freemasons (such as the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, or the Manchester Unity Independent order of Oddfellows) operated throughout Queensland. While I was confident that it was Masonic, some quick background research confirmed that the design of the chair and its motifs are common to furniture associated with Freemasonry. Since I was in the area at the time, I was able to arrange a meeting with some local Freemasons who were able to shed some light on their organisation’s local history, some basic information about the types of furniture you might come across in a lodge, organisational hierarchy, and some of their donations of objects to the museum over the years. They identified the chair as being used by the Master Masons of a lodge, and pointed out that there were other similar- though slightly different- chairs that were also used during their private rituals. While we identified that the collection held other undocumented Masonic items gifted to the museum, no one was sure if this chair in particular came from the local lodge.
During our examinations, we turned our attention to the small engraved presentation plate at the head of the chair that listed the name of the person who presented it, their title, a date, some flourishes and a hallmark. The name and date on the plate didn’t match any listed on their local lodge honor boards, but the name seemed familiar.
Who was Bro. W. Hodge, who did he present this chair to, and why?
To be continued…