The Museum of the Order of St John has opened its doors to the visiting public each week since 1978, but the history of the Museum and its collections goes back much further than this. As early as 1838 gifts of books were made to the Order, with the collection slowly but surely growing to its current c.60,000 items. The collection now includes everything from medieval manuscripts to twenty-first-century first aid equipment.
The first Librarian, The Reverend Thomas Hugo, was appointed in 1867, at which point it can be assumed that the collection was thought to be large and significant enough to merit a dedicated person to oversee it. In 1912 the first full inventory of the contents of the Library was made, and this inventory included not just books, but also pamphlets, paintings, drawings, prints and photographs.
A reflection of the growth of the collections, a Library Committee was appointed in 1913, with the Librarian as the Chairman. The first resolution of the Committee was ‘That the functions of the Committee be the care of the Library, the consideration of all matters of an historical and antiquarian nature and the charge of all matters of an historical and antiquarian nature and the charge of all pictures and objects of antiquarian interest in the possession of the Order…’.
The Order’s current Librarian is Dr. Alan Borg, who acts as a senior volunteer, offering professional advice and guidance on the Order’s historical assets. Dr. Borg’s predecessor, the eminent historian of the crusades Dr. Jonathan Riley-Smith, served as the Librarian of the Order from 1982, and remains the Librarian of the International Order.
It had been possible to view and study the Order’s historic collections by appointment from the 1830s. Items from the collection were first displayed in 1915, when two table cases were donated by Mr C.W. Bartholomew. H.W.Fincham, later the first curator of the Museum, approached the Library Committee regarding the need for a Museum Room in 1920. It was not until 1923 that the ground floor room of the West Tower was given over for this purpose. In 1935 a second room – the west tower basement – was opened to visitors.
In 1978 the Museum commenced regular opening for visitors, not only by appointment. This is when the rooms on the ground floor of the East Tower were developed as galleries. In 2010 the galleries reopened having undergone refurbishment and redisplay, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and other donors. It is now possible to see many of the treasures from the Museum’s medieval collection on display in our Order Gallery.
The Bearers of the Cross project marks another significant milestone in the history of the Museum. It is an important and exciting opportunity for the Museum’s medieval collections to be made more widely available. Part of a much larger project, an open access database will ensure it is possible to explore our collections, including those items not on display in our galleries.