Art Alive in Churches: English churches show off their brillance

Art Alive in Churches: English churches show off their brillance

by Jennie Hawks*

Art Alive in Churches (AAiC) is based in East Anglia in the UK. This covers the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, which have some 1,500 of the most important medieval church buildings in the UK.

These counties were very important in the Middle Ages when there was a great deal of trade between them and the Continent.  With merchants, artisans also travelled to workshops and to decorate secular and religious buildings.

Art Alive in Churches works to remind people of their rich religious heritage in art and artefacts and historically how important links between East Anglia and Europe are.

Art Alive in Churches was set up in 2008, by a group of local government arts officers and the Churches Support Officer for the Anglican Diocese of Norwich; all felt that the art of churches was not well enough known, that there was a great deal of it to bring to public attention and that the space within churches and in their churchyards could be used for workshops and exhibitions in often deprived rural areas. By 2008 the fashion for keeping churches locked when not being used for worship was seen as outdated and unhelpful; instead, the focus was on making churches open and welcoming.

Between 2008 and 2013 Art Alive worked with over 38 churches in Norfolk on annual themed programmes and welcomed over 50,000 visitors to events. It worked with local arts festivals, and with one, commissioned an artist in willow to produce a willow sculpture for a rural churchyard. It had also commissioned poets to write for AAiC. These programmes varied from show-casing the skills of modern artists using traditional skills to using themes such as heraldic devises, angels, saints, rood screens and rood beams.

In 2016 our project theme will be ‘Brass in Abundance’ which will take place in two towns. King’s Lynn, was a major Hanseatic port. Its Minster church of St Margaret’s will host an exhibition about brass monuments and other artefacts, workshops on brass rubbing and the making of brass, and a series of lectures. Cambridge will be the setting for brass in music and how brass instruments were used in medieval church music and for state occasions such as the visit of Queen Elizabeth I to the city. There will be an exhibition, music-making and lectures.

Our mission has always been to educate, to work with local communities and show people the wonderful diversity of art and artefacts that are within church buildings and which contribute to the rich history of East Anglia. Our work has also helped churches to realise their potential as visitor destinations and also to connect them to their local communities when they may have lost that link, especially if the church is not in a town or village centre.

Over the years our work has brought us into contact with many artists and craftspeople using traditional skills. That link between the present and the past, is very important particularly when consideration is given to the maintenance and restoration of religious buildings, as well as what the modern visitor requires when visiting these buildings. This is why earlier this year AAiC worked with undergraduate students from an American university, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, on the ‘Interpretation of Religious Heritage’, comparing City of London churches with London museums. It is a small study, but one that can be used in much wider contexts. The main finding of the study were that churches lag far behind museums in interpretation,particularly for people with disabilities.  Some of this will be down to cost, but there is also the need for a change of mindset to enable visitors and non-worshippers to appreciate the richness of the culture within churches. ( A full project report can be seen at

Visitors need modern facilities, like toilets and cafes. Churches need to be accessible to disabled visitors. Visitors do not like going into buildings which smell of damp, and are unloved and uncared for. They also need mementos, but churches are not good at thinking through what they could produce in the way of cards, photographs of their own art and artefacts as well as prayers, especially composed for their building.  Although these are not directly in the remit of AAiC, we feel it important that we help churches to look at the provision of a good visitor experience and leave a legacy for the church when our work is complete.

AAiC has also noticed over the years that there are not enough skilled artisans for all the maintenance and restoration work continually needed by churches. Artisans retire and there are not enough people being trained to fill the gaps ( so to speak) in stone masonry, woodwork, flint knapping, lime mortar and plaster work, traditional brick making etc. AAiC has linked with the College of West Anglia in King’s Lynn Norfolk, under the Building Crafts and Conservation Trust (BCCT) to develop a five year university degree course, combining academic study with practical skills training to be taught on two sites in North Norfolk, one a large private estate with many old buildings waiting to be restored. It is anticipated that this course will begin in 2017. We hope there will be links with European universities and other organisations so that students can study in Europe and European students can study in the UK.

Since 2008 there have been changes, not all for the better. We no longer have arts officers in local councils and funding for cultural activities in the UK is becoming tougher and tougher as the funding pot gets smaller. However, there has been a noticeable shift towards making churches open and welcoming and both Norfolk and Suffolk have guides to churches, ‘Norfolk Open Churches’ and ‘Angels and Pinnacles Church Heritage Trails’.

However, visitor numbers to churches have fallen this year so we all need to do what we can to ensure that people continue visiting, take part in AAiC activities and understand a little better the importance of their religious heritage.

Networking is an element of AAiC’s work and where membership of FRH is important for us.  For all our work, links into Europe are essential because so much of East Anglian medieval history has strong links to the Continent, and this link needs publicity.  But of course we can all learn from each other instead of working in isolation, and together we can make a contribution to building up the “Greatest Museum in Europe”.

*Jennie Hawks has had a wide experience of working in the voluntary, public and private sectors, having started her working life as a teacher. Her work experience has included running an EU Network in work experience for disabled undergraduates and graduates ( Leonardo da Vinci programme), managing the London Centre for a US university, equal opportunities management and health service complaints panels.

From 2007 -2013 she worked as the Historic Places of Worship Support Officer for the Diocese of Norwich, England, which has over 600 churches. She gained a great deal of experience of working with both rural and urban churches in encouraging churches to be open and welcoming as well as centres for use by local communities.

Since 2013 she has lived in Cambridge and has concentrated on directing Art Alive in Churches, an organisation dedicated to bringing to public attention the rich art and artefacts in East Anglian churches through exhibitions, workshops and use of other media.

In Cambridge she is also Chairman of the Friends of Cambridge Early Music.

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