New museum exploring 6,000 years of faith in Britain opens its doors

The Faith Museum opens its doors to the public for the first time. The Faith Museum explores the myriad ways in which faith has shaped lives and communities across Britain, through rarely seen objects, personal testimonies, and contemporary commissions.

The museum sits at the heart of The Auckland Project, a unique cultural destination in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, which includes historic buildings, art galleries, gardens, extensive parkland and a heritage railway. The Faith Museum is part of the wider restoration and redevelopment of Auckland Castle, which has been made possible with a £12.4m grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, which was raised by National Lottery players.

Leading visitors on a journey through British history, the museum comprises a series of gallery spaces with an active programme of rotating displays and temporary exhibitions.

The ground floor traces a path through 6,000 years of faith, beginning in the Neolithic period with the tactile Gainford Stone and ending in the year 2000. The displays feature objects on loan from 50 national and local institutions and private lenders, which complement The Auckland Project’s own collection. The objects, some of them beautiful, are often enigmatic and poignant; they are witnesses to deep reverence and forgotten customs that speak directly through time to us today. The upper floor of the museum houses a diverse programme of temporary exhibitions and installations, reflecting contemporary issues and timeless ideas. The galleries open with a display of works by ten contemporary British artists, offering their individual perspectives on faith today.

For many, faith is associated with a power bigger than ourselves. The challenge of defining the nature and impact of something seemingly intangible is a foundation of the museum, which does not seek to force a definition of faith but rather invites visitors to consider how people across history have described and demonstrated it. This style of presenting objects is suggestive – often powerfully so – but the power of suggestion is located within the viewer, who is not directed towards any particular interpretation or conclusion. Local faith leaders, academic specialists and community groups have provided thoughts and perspectives throughout the development process; the museum aims to welcome visitors from all walks of life, whether they identify as religious, spiritual, or neither.

Walking through galleries housed in the 14th-century Scotland Wing of Auckland Castle, a never-before-displayed object found less than a mile from the Castle is one of the smallest and most remarkable items on show: the Binchester Ring. Excavated in 2014 at Binchester Roman Fort, this extraordinary silver ring with carved carnelian stone inscribed with an anchor and fish is rare early evidence of Christianity in Britain.

Other highlights in these galleries include:

  • The 13th-century Bodleian Bowl, an early example of evidence of Jewish communities in Britain. This decorated bronze vessel is inscribed with the name of Joseph, son of Rabbi Yechiel, a famous scripture scholar of Paris. Joseph lived in Colchester and may have given this bowl to the Jewish congregation there before leaving for the Holy Land.

  • A unique altar hanging made from fragments of embroidered blue velvet. It was probably assembled after 1600 from garments worn by pre-Reformation priests, to preserve remnants of the Catholic faith.

  • A wooden pulpit made around 1760 for a chapel in Teesdale built by its congregation of miners, who also donated money to buy the land and stone. John Wesley himself visited the chapel and preached from this pulpit.

  • A rare surviving Tyndale Bible. This English New Testament was printed in 1536, the year William Tyndale was hunted down in exile in Antwerp and executed for heresy.

    While the Faith Museum builds its own collection, it will display objects from institutions from across Britain including The Jewish Museum London, The Ashmolean Museum, The Bowes Museum, The Imperial War Museum, National Museums of Scotland, The Salvation Army and the National Museum of Football. The British Museum has lent 18 objects to the Faith Museum, including a mirror from an iron age cart burial showing how early societies in Britain buried their dead, a late 11th-century ivory crozier head, and a 17th-century clog almanac showing how the agricultural year was measured by saints’ days.

    Upstairs, visitors will encounter contemporary expressions of faith in a series of temporary exhibition displays. Dominating the Great Gallery upstairs, with its high-pitched ceiling, is a dramatic installation by Mat Collishaw, Eidolon, specially created for the space. This large-scale work is complemented by more intimate pieces in the adjacent galleries, inviting us to consider how faith can be both awe-inspiring and public, yet personal and private. In a gallery looking out across the Castle’s walled garden, a collection of paintings by artist Roger Wagner depict Biblical scenes in modern landscapes in a poetic juxtaposition.

    The final gallery space invites visitors to reflect on three central questions present throughout the museum: Where do I belong? How do I live? and Am I alone? Among the artists featured are Newcastle-based artist Mani Kambo, Nicola Green, The Singh Twins, and the late Khadija Saye.

The Faith Museum turned out to be the hardest piece of our jigsaw. We have tried to tell stories which put into context 6,000 years of human endeavour and the restlessness of the human spirit.
Jonathan Ruffer, Founder of The Auckland Project
We look forward to opening the doors of the Faith Museum to visitors this autumn. The objects and contemporary artworks on display tell the story of how people in Britain have expressed their faith throughout history, often in a very personal way. I’d like to thank all the lenders, artists, advisors and funders who have helped to create a space for us all to reflect on and discuss what faith means to us.
Clare Baron, Head of Exhibitions at The Auckland Project
It is so uplifting to see the Faith Museum open to the public, allowing an exploration of the heritage of faith in the UK spanning 6000 years. We are proud to have supported the creation of the museum, as part of our wider investment in The Auckland Project, thanks to money raised by National Lottery players. We believe in the power of heritage to ignite the imagination, offer joy and inspiration, and to build pride in place and connection to the past – and this museum will Page 3 of 5 provide that inspiration allowing the public to uncover enthralling heritage stories in these beautiful spaces.
Eilish McGuinness, Chief Executive at The National Lottery Heritage Fund
The Judaic-Christian faith has been integral to the fabric of Britain for centuries, shaping our community values and traditions. Christian principles underpin our concepts of justice and equality, and have played a significant role in the development of education, art, music, literature and architecture as well as a generous spirit of care for our vulnerable and disadvantaged. Today, in a country that celebrates diverse expressions of faith and belief The Jerusalem Trust is delighted to have supported The Auckland Project with the Faith Museum which will provide a rich journey through our shared history.
Lady Sainsbury, Chairman of The Jerusalem Trust

The 740sqm museum has seen extensive conservation work undertaken on the historically significant Grade I listed Scotland Wing of Auckland Castle, with refurbishments overseen by Purcell architects. The new purpose-built extension designed by Níall McLaughlin Architects takes the form of a medieval tithe barn and follows the line of the original perimeter wall of the castle. Conceived as a sacred storehouse, the monolithic, pitched roof building was constructed using Cop Crag sandstone, local to the North East, and the same as used at Durham Cathedral.

Programming will be a central part of the museum going forward, with events, talks and workshops enabling yet more stories to be told and more perspectives to be explored. Educational sessions for schools will ensure children of all ages are able to have their learning enriched by inspirational visits.

The Faith Museum is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Jerusalem Trust and the Kirby Laing Foundation.

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