OLD CHAPEL MUSEUM
The Stonyhurst collection is the oldest surviving museum collection in the English-speaking world and has been described as the collection of a ‘forgotten ancient British university’. It embodies the Jesuit philosophy encapsulated in the Jesuit Jerome Nadal’s phrase ‘the world is our house’ – outward- looking, respectful of other cultures, intrinsically inclusive and resolutely opposed to oppression and exploitation – that made the Jesuits keepers of memory and preservers of culture.
The first acquisition, Henry VII’s cope and chasuble, was recorded in 1609 at St Omers. Since then the College has become the repository for the historically marginalised but culturally-important Roman Catholic minority both at home and in exile from before the Reformation until the present day.
It has also gathered together an awe-inspiring array of objects amassed through the activities of the Jesuits as missionaries and teachers all over the world.
The tissue of memory of the British Roman Catholic community at home and in exile
The collection originated as a sanctuary for the shattered fragments of sacred culture rescued during the Reformation; and to this day it continues to be the chief repository of memory for the Roman Catholic community of Britain, at home and in exile. On behalf of the British Jesuit Province, it holds many important artefacts, such as a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, the rope that bound St Edmund Campion to the hurdle at the time of his execution and personal items which belonged to St Omers More.
The first items acquired were vestments, manuscripts, silver and relics collected by British Catholics in the turbulent days of the Tudor monarchs, and smuggled over to St Omers for safekeeping. At St Omers these artefacts played a crucial role in the spiritual mission of the College, and were seen as representing the British Catholic cultural memory, rescued from destruction: a source of deep and powerful inspiration.
There are significant royal connections, including items which belonged to Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, Mary Tudor, Mary Queen of Scots, James II and the Stuart family, including Prince Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie.
“collecting the world” – a repository of global culture
The Jesuit Order produced some of the most inspirational and spectacularly successful missionaries the world has ever seen. Part of their success was due to their sensitivity to indigenous local cultures and beliefs, and their habit of absorbing whatever was good and familiar into Christian faith and practice.
The Stonyhurst collection is a testimony to the unique heritage of dialogue with other cultures and faiths which the College inherits from the Jesuit tradition. is explains why it now includes artefacts from all major cultures and every quarter of the globe, making it a collection of world art of breathtaking scope and calibre, brought back from the mission fields.
Throughout the centuries, the College has used these objects to demonstrate to its students the universality of humanity’s search for God.
At the same time, the collection shows how Stonyhurst’s staff and pupils have made a unique mark on the world around them, as missionaries, scientists, naturalists, travellers, civil servants, archaeologists and antiquarians.
The Significance of the Stonyhurst Collection
The cultural significance of the Stonyhurst collection thus transcends national boundaries and is of common importance for present and future generations of many peoples and nations.
It exhibits a vital interchange of human values over a very long time span across much of the globe and bears exceptional testimony to many of the living cultural traditions that have been most decisive in shaping the modern world.
Most importantly, these objects are still used for rituals and feast days. The collection embodies living traditions, expressing practices and beliefs celebrated the world over, which communities and individuals can recognise as part of their particular heritage. In so doing, it represents an outstanding example of cultural continuity.
The Stonyhurst collection is thus not merely remarkable but unique. Its national and international importance lies not just in its astounding scope, or in the number of iconic objects it contains, but in its significance as a collection. Every object, book or document in the College is a small piece in a vast mosaic, each with its own history and significance. But when these are taken together, the collection becomes immeasurably more than the sum of its parts.
It was, and still is, the collection of a single organisation with an unbroken history going back to the 16th century. It embodies a 400-year record of a faith community, over a thousand years of English Catholic history, and several millennia of world history.
There is, quite simply, no comparable collection of its kind anywhere.
The Old Chapel Museum is in the final stages of renovation, and thanks to a generous grant from the E.L. Wiegand Foundation (USA) it has been possible to invest in museum quality display cases which will ensure the artifacts are safe and accessible for years to come.
The Old Chapel Museum will open formally on the 8th December 2017.