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Wednesday, 12 November 2014

November's #hipstermuseum: Museum of the Order of St John

Dearest followers and friends! It seems an age since we last revealed to you one London's hidden heritage gems that we call our #hipstermuseums. Well we think you'll like what we have in store for you this time. It's got art, it's got armour, it's got Shakespeare, a history of violence and a Crypt. What, you haven't heard of the Museum of the Order of St John in Farringdon? Let us illuminate you...


At some point or another, most Londoners will have ended up wandering (like drunk) around Farringdon on the hunt for the station, and run into this elaborate medieval looking gate structure. It looks pretty out of place in the world of Clerkenwell bars and offices, but hey, this is London and London is weird like that. But this fascinating building (part of a former priory completed in 1504) is a testament to the long history of the Order of St John (of St John's Ambulance fame). 


I think it needs to be said that of the many small London museum's we've visited, the displays have been very high quality. This one was no different, having been completely redeveloped in 2010 and looking up to date with its floating ship models and dense display show cases. The museum (free to enter) only actually consists of three galleries, including the 'Link Gallery' which is essentially just an interactive timeline. Their 'Maltese Gallery' which contains some of their oldest and most impressive pieces relating to the Knight's of St John's time on Malta is the most impressive, featuring archival documents from the 16th century, furniture, art and more. 


But maybe we are getting ahead of ourselves. Who are the Order of St John and why are they at all of my festivals and gigs? It's a long and complicated answer since the original Order of St John Hospitallers was founded in Jerusalem in 1080. Although they were technically Knights, the brothers of St John were more interested in peace, and healing specifically, as they looking after the medical needs of those going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In the 1140s a Priory for the English arm was set up in Clerkenwell, and actually the crypt from this original building still exists and is open to visitors! Most of the building though dates to the 16th century- although the changing whims of the royalty meant it was used for a variety of things after the dissolution of the monasteries. The contemporary St Johns was revived the late nineteenth century with the goal of providing medical care for ordinary people, and actually teaching them to look after themselves through first aid courses. Their mission has been pretty much the same ever since!


But like most museums attached the larger institutions, all the best stuff (the silverware, the paintings) is used to decorate the building. And actually in this case it's not so much the museum galleries but the building itself that's so interesting. For example, in the 16th century the building above the gate was the office of Elizabeth the I's Master of the Revels, who was in charge of approving all plays performed in the city. That means Shakespeare would have had to come here to perform all his works before they were seen by the public! Woah man, woah. Fortunately, you can get into all the fun hidden bits on the tours the museum offers twice a day (again free of charge!)


So there you have it, not wanting to give away all the secrets of the Order of St Johns. It's medical history all tied up with London history with a good dash of crusaders, priors and angry peasants. All for free! So next time you stumble across that famous gate, take the chance to look inside!


For more information about the Museum of the Order of St John visit:  http://www.museumstjohn.org.uk/index.html

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