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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Durham Cathedral's 'Open Treasure': a Big HLF Award

It is immensely heartening that in the latest round of awards, the Heritage Lottery Fund is supporting Durham and Peterborough Cathedrals. We are not the only two cathedrals to be grateful for the HLF’s generosity in recent years. No doubt it is a coincidence that both these famous and beautiful cathedrals are Romanesque, and that both their profiles are well known to travellers speeding up and down the East Coast Main Line.

The first thing I want to do is to pay tribute to the great team here at the Cathedral who worked up the bid and worked with staff, volunteers and community to prepare for its submission.  We have had great support from the officers of HLF itself, from the Cathedrals Fabric Commission and many other bodies and individuals along the way. And of course we want to say thank you to the HLF for this great news. It is a wonderful way of beginning Advent.

This £3.9 million award will mean that we are within sight of achieving our long-held dream of displaying the Cathedral’s marvellous treasures in some of its equally marvellous medieval spaces. The buildings round the cloister constitute the unique (for England) survival of an intact monastic enclosure that is still used for the religious purposes for which it was intended. Their treasures include relics associated with St Cuthbert such as his coffin, pectoral cross and portable altar. Not only that, but the Cathedral Library has retained more of its monastic collections of medieval manuscripts and early printed books than anywhere else in the country.

The collections are of international significance as a witness to the civilisation, culture and history of Christian North East England particularly in the Saxon and early Norman periods. They more than do justice to the landscape and architecture of the World Heritage Site that has been their home for so many centuries. What we have lacked are facilities to exhibit them properly. In the 21st century, this means creating environments that conform to the highest conservation and security standards in which they can be safely displayed and interpreted. To adapt medieval buildings for this purpose while at the same time enhancing their beautiful interiors in their own right is a formidable challenge.

After years of planning, we are now poised to realise this dream. Called Open Treasure, the development will create a large exhibition space in the monastic Dormitory (which will still retain its 19th century function as a library). Its focus will be the shaping of church and cathedral in medieval Northumbria, and how this story of a faith community has continued beyond the Reformation into the present day. A newly constructed gallery will house some of our most important and precious manuscripts together with our Saxon stones and artefacts, while the Great Kitchen will have as its focus St Cuthbert and the relics associated with his memory.

Why Open Treasure? Because we shall be opening up what has been largely hidden from public view in the past: incomparable medieval spaces, and the equally incomparable treasures they will contain. This year’s highly successful Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition, in which the Cathedral has been a partner and to which we lent no fewer than 14 items for display, has shown that there is a real appetite for Christian heritage that is beautifully displayed and intelligently interpreted.

There is another purpose to all this. We want to maintain free entry to the Cathedral itself. By opening up our ‘Treasure’ as a revenue-earning exhibition, we hope to stabilise the Cathedral’s finances so that it will never be necessary to levy an admission charge to such a fine sacred space. When we held a press call to announce the news, I was pressed hard on this point: it is hugely appreciated in North East England that the Cathedral does not charge for admission to the church itself. We want to keep it that way and we rely on Open Treasure to achieve this.

For our biggest treasure is the Cathedral itself, so much loved and admired across the world. Not just the building and what it contains, but its community that has its origins in 7th century Lindisfarne and its saints such as Aidan and Cuthbert. Like the Benedictine house that it became, the Cathedral is still a living place of worship, work and learning and this adds contemporary human, Christian texture to the place. Our invitation to visitors to experience for themselves this rich past and present is part of our mission both of hospitality and of interpretation. We hope all our guests both young and old will not simply come here as sightseers or observers but become participants in the Cathedral’s life of prayer, community, arts, learning and outreach.

Thanks to HLF and other funders, this vision is close to becoming reality. We want to begin the works in 2014 and already have significant funds raised and pledged. Thank you to everyone who has supported us generously so far. If there is anyone reading this blog who can help us match the funding so that the project can begin all the sooner, that will be wonderful too. Call me night or day!

This is a revised version of my piece on the HLF Blog to coincide with the announcement of the award.

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