Download the 2013 Conference Report Utrecht, Movable Religious Heritage (report, feedback, programme, speakers, delegates)

Plenary session, Geertekerk Utrecht (Photo L. de Bolle, Belgium)

Conrad-Daubrah, Diane “The knowledge that I am not alone”

A seminar on Movable Religious Heritage, organized in Utrecht, Holland, by Future for Religious Heritage at the beginning of November, offered the chance to listen to and meet some of the 130 delegates from 16 countries – European experts on church buildings and religious objects. The chosen venue, the Museum Catharijneconvent, is the Netherlands’ national museum of Christian art, culture and history, considered to be the best of its kind in the world. The aim of this year’s annual seminar (the third) was to look at the threat facing Europe’s Movable Religious Heritage, to share expertise and experience and to discuss how to protect the interiors and contents of churches which lose their original function or are threatened with closure.

The first day’s sessions, held in the morning in the Geertekerk, were led by Crispin Truman, (CEO of the Churches Conservation Trust, UK) Keynote speeches were by Dr.Justin Kroesen (Assist. Professor of Art History of Christianity in the Theology and Religious Studies faculty of University of Groningen ) and Oddbjorm Sormoen (who previously worked for English Heritage, now Director of the Dept. of Church Buildings and Heritage Admin. in the KA Association for Employers in the Church of Norway and church-related NGOs). The situation regarding the closing of churches and the fate of their religious objects in various European countries was outlined in 6 short presentations. One of these was from Revd. Ruth Dowson of Leeds, whose career in events management contributed to the great success of the Durham exhibition featuring the Lindisfarne Gospels this year.

Lunchtime offered the chance to see the treasures in the Museum Catharijneconvent and to look at the poster presentations, one being a modest effort contributed by the writer of this article. It was hard to decide which of the three afternoon sessions to attend. One dealt with Conservation and Collection Management (moderated by Geoffrey Hunter, head of Care of Churches for the Diocese of London) another Theft and Protection and the third Raising Awareness (the session I attended as the subject seemed most relevant to my present research in Switzerland). In this session, lectures were on endangered churches in Brandenburg by B.Janowski, Germany; on interiors and movable religious heritage in The Netherlands by E. Koldeweij, whose presentation included an example of the Netherlands’ Heritage Agency’s method of discriminating between movable and immovable heritage – in this case, how exactly a chandelier is attached to a ceiling! The third talk highlighted issues relating to artefacts in museums (V. Minucciani, Italy); Ms. Minucciani illustrated how different approaches to displaying religious artefacts change or “resanctify” objects, as well as modifying the attitude of the observer towards them.

The Mayor of Utrecht hosted a dinner in the magnificent rooms of the Paushuize, built in 1517 for the man who became Holland’s only Pope, Adrian VI.

Following the third AGM of the Future for Religious Heritage, day two gave delegates the opportunity to visit several Dutch churches in Amsterdam. Under the charismatic and knowledgeable leadership of Tessa Luger of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and Marc de Beyer from the Museum Catharijneconvent, assisted by other group leaders, we attempted to assess the current religious, artistic, historical and cultural value of furnishings and artefacts in the Church of St.Augustine, due sadly to close its doors in a few weeks’ time. We referred to “Guidelines on Ways of Dealing with Religious Objects” published in English last year by the Museum Catharijneconvent (M. de Beyer, J. Takke) as we looked closely at silver chalices, a terracotta statue, an embroidered banner, paintings……. After this exercise, delegates were taken by bus – and tramped in the rain – to visit other religious sites and museums – all impressive, but two particularly are worth mentioning in this short summary:

The De Duif church, one of 15 in the city which have been rescued, renovated and are now used for other purposes by a commercial company. The pulpit, altar, windows and paintings remain; acoustics and lighting have been improved and heating installed. Although still much in demand for “life events” such as weddings and funerals, De Duif hosts a myriad of other events from concerts and receptions to fashion shows and seminars, so that maintenance costs of the building and its treasures can be covered; the company even pays a dividend to investors! The 17th-century Portugese Synagogue, is both a tourist attraction and place of worship for Amsterdam’s Jewish community. It plays a secondary role as a museum, to which the Synagogue’s treasures are returned for safe storage after use, under the watchful eye of curator Mirjam Knotter, who guided us around with elan. Peter Aiers, Director of the CCT’s SE UK region, described the huge building aptly as ” a truly amazing blend of heritage and living religion”.

The two-day seminar ended in the Biblical Museum in Amsterdam, where many took advantage of the last-minute chance to exchange ideas and have a glass of wine, making a mental note to return to this impressive museum.

Why am I personally so interested in the churches the British left behind in Switzerland? As Dr. Justin Kroesen put it in his introductory speech “Churches provide access to Europe’s past in a way no other category of monuments can….. churches read like story books to the attentive visitor. The architecture of the building and especially its interior organisation and furnishings, reflect the beliefs and rituals of those who built and used them, as well as their world views, their ethics and aesthetics. Furthermore, church interiors also provide insights into such diverse aspects of history as economic circumstances and social structures.” For the writer, this first experience of a meeting of international experts in the field of religious heritage – many of them surprisingly very young! – was intensive, invigorating, humbling and extraordinarily worthwhile. I feel newly motivated to continue my own, very low-key investigations into the history of Holy Trinity Pontresina (1882-1974) and the whereabouts of the long ago demolished church’s furnishings and contents. At the same time, my research into the history of all four Church of England buildings erected in the Engadine valley in the 19th century continues – a task I can now complete in the knowledge that I am not alone.

Diane Conrad-Daubrah, St.Moritz, Switzerland 11.11.13