At the International Conference on Freemasonry, Peeking in the Lodge Attic


By Ian A. Stewart

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then what do we make of a vintage Masonic gavel carved from the wooden stock of a World War I German rifle?

For ages, Masons have produced, gifted, and—crucially— kept all manner of fraternal tokens and objects. From elaborate silk aprons to jewels, furniture, and stacks of paper records, the vast amount of Masonic material culture—the term for all that stuff—makes Freemasonry an invaluable resource for researchers. Behind every old Masonic signet ring, there’s a story to be told about the maker, the wearer, and the world they belonged to.

That’s the idea behind the 2023 International Conference on Freemasonry, taking place April 8 at UCLA. There, archivists and scholars from around the world will pull apart a few of those stories, revealing just how much history is contained within Masonic keepsakes.

11th International Conference on Freemasonry at UCLA
The International Conference on Freemasonry is an exploration of that vast collection of material culture—the technical term for all that “stuff.”

The annual event, which is presented by the Grand Lodge of California and organized by Margaret Jacob, a distinguished professor of history at UCLA, is one of the most anticipated academic conferences dealing with Freemasonry and fraternal history. Open to the general public, it offers Masons and non-Masons an opportunity to better understand Masonry and the role it has played in the wider world. “The study of material culture and how to use it to understand historical events is an important part of the historical profession’s most dynamic area of growth, public history,” Jacob says.

That’s where the German rifle-turned-Masonic gavel comes in. That item, which was gifted to St. Catherine’s Park Lodge № 2899 for its hospitality to overseas Mason-soldiers, is part of the collection of the Museum of Freemasonry in London, and being presented by Mark Dennis, the museum’s longtime curator. “Sometimes the simplest things can have an amazing story behind them,” he says.

Not all material culture can be held. Leigh Ann Gardner, a writer and public history expert, will present research on cemeteries belonging to Masonic lodges and other benevolent societies. Others will present stories about Masonic and Mason-themed costumes, letters, certificates, house- ware, and more. And, of course, there will be aprons.

“These objects provide a fascinating insight,” says Adam Kendall, executive director of the Oakland Scottish Rite Historical Foundation, who will also present at the conference. “They raise more questions than answers— which should not be perceived as roadblocks. Instead, they should serve as launching pads to propel the research further.”

2023 International Conference on Freemasonry:
“From the Attic of the Grand Lodge”

Saturday, April 8 at UCLA
University of California, Los Angeles – Faculty Club
480 Charles E Young Dr, East Los Angeles, CA 90095

Admission: $30;
optional lunch $20

Pete Ivey

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