A Space Set Apart: St Peter Hungate, Norwich 1933-2019
This historically significant medieval church was under immediate threat of demolition in 1933, when, in a bold move, the City of Norwich developed a new kind of partnership with the Church of England to convert it into Britain’s first ecclesiastical museum. For 60 years it operated as one of four Norwich museums, exhibiting religious objects from the main museum collections as well as from parish churches in the City and the Diocese of Norwich. After the Museum was closed in 1995, it was re-opened under the stewardship of a trust, now called Hungate Medieval Art, and it operates still as a museum and as a space for contemporary art, which is site specific or in some way sympathetic to the Trust’s aims of promoting medieval art in Norfolk.
Although it is now a museum, St Peter Hungate is still considered a church. While the objects on display (which include the building and its fittings) are presented using the language and techniques of heritage, the medieval architecture, stained glass and monuments speak in different ways of the religious past of the building and, for some, a religious present. How does this work? It has been said that heritage is based on “a secular gaze” in its focus on history as the formative past of individuals, places and nations. However, heritage also involves the setting apart and other quasi-ritual behaviours that are strongly reminiscent of religious activities. Indeed, so much so, that some scholars speak of the ‘sacralization’ of heritage. Thus, multiple and conflicting ideas of sacred and secular may potentially operate at the museum.
In this study, Dr Clare Haynes (Senior Research Associate) will focus on the history of the museum and its display practices. Using archive materials including photographs and guidebooks, inventories and City of Norwich committee papers, she will trace the ways in which St Peter Hungate/Hungate Medieval Art has been used, and regarded, as a space set apart.