Week 15: House of the Temple

Organization mission: It is the mission of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, SJ, to improve its members and enhance the communities in which they live by teaching and emulating the principles of Brotherly Love, Tolerance, Charity, and Truth while actively embracing high social, moral, and spiritual values including fellowship, compassion, and dedication to God, family and country.

The guided tour I took of the House of the Temple in Washington, DC focused on the history, symbolism, and activities of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. Several architectural elements carry symbolic meaning: the frequent use of the number 33 (33 columns, 33 lights in the chandeliers, etc.), the skylight and other windows that bring light inside, the double-headed eagle carved everywhere. Some rooms are set up as meeting spaces that are occasionally used by Freemasons; other rooms serve as exhibit spaces highlighting objects owned by prominent Masons and relics related to the history of Freemasonry in America. There are also library spaces that researchers can use to access books by and about Masons.

One exhibit room shows the charitable work that Freemasons have undertaken and continue to carry out. Here, for example, there are children’s toys and books, and explanations of how the Freemasons do what they can to make a children’s hospital fun and pleasant.

House of the Temple

House of the Temple

The tour began with a short video about the Scottish Rite. In the video, several men talk about why they became Masons and what it means to them, and toward the end of the video, a succession of men each say the word, “Welcome” – welcoming the visitor to the House of the Temple.

This video, and the visit as a whole, reminded me of other museums that promote the work of the agency or organization that occupies the building. At the Capitol Visitor Center, every visitor who goes on a tour sees a short film that proclaims, “Congress is where we can find our common ground.” The brief movie at the Blessed John Paul II Shrine discusses the papacy of John Paul II, but also emphasizes the Knights of Columbus (the organization that manages the shrine). Members of the public can tour the historic headquarters of organizations like the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the American Red Cross – organizations that still meet in these buildings today. Just outside DC, the LDS Temple’s visitor center has exhibits that explain and promote Mormonism. Many of DC’s government agencies have exhibit spaces or full-fledged museums that publicize their own work. Obviously, every museum is maintained by some group of people, but in each of the examples just mentioned, the group of people preceded the function of their building as a visitor destination.

A portion of the House of the Temple’s visitors are Masons themselves, and these visitors are surely enacting their Professional/Hobbyist identities when visiting their own museum. Other visitors are non-Masons just hoping to explore, learn something new, or perhaps share an outing with friends or family.

I am actively involved in a volunteer organization, and it is fun to imagine a museum boosting our own civic work. We would display name tags, vintage newsletters from 2006, bottle openers and magnets with our logo, and penguin memorabilia. And we could have items representing all the different volunteer work we do: a can of food, a pet emergency mask, a dictionary, stage sets, giant cauldrons, art projects from museum family days, and programs from charity auctions. Our most popular gallery would showcase bizarre things we’ve come across while cleaning up litter and sorting clothing donations for the homeless. All the walls in this building would be orange.

In putting together such a museum, we would have to consider: what are our obligations, both to our organization and to our visitors? How much should a group or fraternity toot its own horn?

As a visitor, I like to see some reflexivity, some willingness to admit the bad along with the good. Including these aspects of the picture lends more credibility to the site as a whole. That said, it’s easy to understand a service organization’s desire to tell the world about all the great things they’ve done.

There are various reasons I cannot become a Mason, but I can still be inspired by an inscription etched in the wall at the House of the Temple:

What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us: what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.
-Albert Pike


February’s blog theme is Visitor Motivations.

About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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