Durham Cathedral's Open Treasure Exhibition | Living North

Durham Cathedral's Open Treasure Exhibition

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Durham Cathedral Cloister in the sunlight
We went on an exclusive, behind-the-scenes tour of Durham Cathedral’s Open Treasure exhibition, which opens this spring. We found out about hidden steps, porpoise bones and other secrets that lie within
‘It’s remarkable how this place has been a centre of pilgrimage for a thousand years, and continues to be so’

I’m sitting in the cavernous nave of Durham Cathedral on a bitingly cold winter’s afternoon as the sun begins its descent and the shadows lengthen. Tom Billington, Project Coordinator for Open Treasure, greets me along with Catherine Hodgson, Marketing Officer for Durham Cathedral. The two are to be my guides around the cathedral’s world-class exhibition Open Treasure, a multi-million pound project opening up previously unseen areas of the cathedral to the public this spring.

The first stop on my adventure is the Monks’ Dormitory. I’d imagined a confined attic-like space, instead I’m greeted by a vast hall, still with its original 14th century timbers, that once housed 80 to 100 monks. ‘It’s one of only two buildings like this in England, the other one’s in Westminster Hall,’ Tom tells me. Intriguingly, the monk’s cells are still visible, simple alcoves in the wall that now hold rows of bookcases bearing some 300,000 books in total. 

Tom explains that the idea of this room with regards to the exhibition is for it to act as a timeline, an interactive room, that will set the scene for the exhibits later on. First up is a collection of over 80 ancient Roman and Anglo-Saxon stones from across the North East. Tom and Catherine explain that the tagline for the exhibition is 2000 years in the making; an emphasis on the early trappings of Christianity in the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods right up to the modern day.

As visitors move further through the room (and further through history) they will come to an exhibit on St Cuthbert, an explanation of how his remains came to Durham from Lindisfarne and the essential role this played in the foundation of the city and cathedral. Visitors will then delve into monastic life, with touchscreen manuscripts and a touchscreen map to show the development of the cathedral and the city around it over time. A life-sized model of a monk’s cell will also showcase how the monastery’s inhabitants lived before the bookcases were there. 

The room is steeped in history, and Tom points out white markings on some of the beams that signify the presence of wallpaper. ‘At one time there was a house built in the bottom end of the dormitory because they had no room for all the clergy. There are accounts of kids playing here and washing being hung out as though this end was a garden, there’s some really interesting stuff there.’

Next I’m shown into the Collections Gallery, a more contemporary space that will house the valuable items of the cathedral’s collection as well as items on loan from other collections. The plan is for a rolling exhibitions programme that will change every three to six months, and Tom and Catherine are hopeful that will include Durham Cathedral’s three copies of the Magna Carta dating from 1216, 1225 and 1300. 

‘If we put our Magna Cartas on display we would hope to get supporting objects and artefacts from other institutions,’ Catherine tells me. ‘The Lindisfarne Gospels come up north every seven years, so we’d be in a good position to have them at Durham Cathedral.’ ‘We’ve got very high specification cases being made overseas,’ Tom adds. ‘It’s the same guys who worked at the Rijksmuseum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. They also put the case round the Mona Lisa – we’re talking about the best in the world working here.’

‘One of the important things about this whole exhibition space is its accessibility,’ Tom tells me as we pause by a lift shaft that leads from the Monks’ Dormitory down to the Great Kitchen. ‘That’s an underlying theme – it’s both physical and intellectual access. We want everyone from kids to academics to gain something when they come here. To have this amount of access in buildings of this age is quite exciting, it doesn’t happen in many places.’

Next on the exhibition route is the Great Kitchen. After a brief stumble around in the dark – ‘This is one of the most beautiful rooms in the cathedral believe it or not,’ laughs Tom – we manage to get the lights going, and the results are epic. It’s a vast, domed room that will house the centrepiece of the collection, the relics of St Cuthbert, and, just like the Monks’ Dormitory, it’s a breathtaking sight.

‘It’s one of only two intact friars’ kitchens in England,’ Tom informs me. ‘The other’s in Glastonbury, but this is much bigger and in better condition. There’s only one other building in Europe that I know of with a star-vaulted ceiling like that and that’s Fontevraud Abbey in France, so it’s very special. It was used as a kitchen from the 14th century until 1947. There’s an iron oven built into the wall; we didn’t want to put anything in the alcoves because they’re all fireplaces – we don’t want to hide away the historical features.’ 
St Cuthbert’s coffin, one of the only surviving examples of Anglo-Saxon woodwork, will be in the centre of the room, along with his cross, comb and vestments. A former working kitchen, the space is intended to be one of contemplation and reflection beneath the impressive star-vaulted ceiling after the numerous interactive displays in the Monks’ Dormitory. Cuthbert’s treasures won’t actually be on display until the environmental effects of people passing through the space have been measured, but Catherine and Tom are hopeful they will be installed permanently by the end of the year.

After passing a hatch in the wall where they would have taken food from the Great Kitchen to the Refectory, we come to the Pilgrimage Gallery, a room that places the visitor to the fore. The space will feature an interactive virtual touchscreen map on the wall, so visitors can type in where they come from, which in turn will populate their location on the map. People have visited Durham Cathedral from as far away as Siberia, Madagascar and The Cook Islands, and Tom explains that it’s all about historical perspective becoming personal to the visitor. ‘It’s remarkable how this place has been a centre of pilgrimage for a thousand years, and continues to be so.’

Our final stop is the Community Gallery where Tom and Catherine explain the significance. ‘Open Treasure isn’t just a construction project,’ Tom explains. ‘There’s an activity plan that runs for three years and will see things like reading groups, a young curator’s programme, Treasure Stories which is going out to schools, and doing artwork and projects around some of the treasures of St Cuthbert. All of that at some point will be on display here. Continuing on we’ll have other artwork from members of the community; it’s nice that we have a space where local people can display their work in a new nationally significant museum space.’

Deep within the bowels of the cathedral there are still hidden secrets being uncovered. Tom points out one of his favourite things, an inauspicious archway, discovered during works, which turns out to be 14th century. We’ve woken up the 14th century arch that hasn’t been doing anything for a long time and got it holding up our new exhibition,’ declares Tom. ‘Things like that we have to adapt to as we uncover them. We recently found a floorboard with the names of all the joiners who had worked on the dormitory. We also found some 11th century steps behind a wall which was being removed. They were an amazing find. They lead down into the undercroft that runs the full length of the cloister. We’ve found Roman pottery (believed to be from a settlement before the Anglo-Saxon church) and lots of animal and fish bones.’ It seems the monks were particularly partial to oysters and even the odd porpoise.

There’s just time for a quick peek into the Refectory Library (which isn’t part of Open Treasure and is closed to the general public), a room which has manuscripts dating from the 6th century and houses the most intact monastic library in England. It’s yet another reminder of just how significant and culturally important the cathedral is. ‘By themselves the Great Kitchen and the Monks’ Dormitory are some of the most important rooms in England,’ Tom tells me. ‘To have them attached to the cathedral is just another bonus.’

It’s Catherine who sums up the pervasive mood of excitement when she explains that the project has free access at its heart. ‘A lot of cathedrals now have to charge people to enter,’ she explains. ‘We want to make sure that the cathedral itself is an open treasure, this is one of the most exciting things to happen at the cathedral for hundreds of years.’ Such a ringing endorsement is hard to argue with as we step out into the cloister and the crisp evening air and the cathedral bells begin to toll.

Published in: March 2016

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