Glencairn Museum News | Number 1, 2012
This week we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Glencairn Museum, which opened to the public for the first time on January 16, 1982. From its completion in 1939 until Mildred Pitcairn’s passing in 1979 Glencairn was the private home of the Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn family. From the very beginning, however, the Pitcairns shared their magnificent home with many others. For more than 70 years the Great Hall has been an unforgettable venue for dances, music classes, and art classes for the Academy of the New Church and Bryn Athyn College. Glencairn has also hosted a wide variety of community events.
The Pitcairns’ love for New Church education is plain for all to see in the decoration of Glencairn, most evident in the three-story glass mosaic adorning the large arch between the Great Hall and the Upper Hall. The subject of the mosaic is the Academy seal, with large medallions representing the Boys School, the Girls School, Bryn Athyn College, and the Theological School. After Mildred Pitcairn passed away in 1979, Glencairn, together with Raymond Pitcairn’s extraordinary art collections, were gifted to the Academy by the Glencairn Foundation. By 1982 the decision had been made to use the building as a museum, combining Pitcairn’s personal art collections with those of the Academy’s Museum.
The Academy of the New Church Museum had its beginnings in 1877 when Bishop William Henry Benade and John Pitcairn, father of Raymond Pitcairn, embarked on a voyage to Europe, Egypt, and the Holy Land. They returned home with more than 1,000 artifacts from the ancient world. Benade wrote home, “these things will make the beginning of a Museum for the Academy. I hope that all our friends will bear in mind that we shall need a Museum, and will collect whatever they can find that may be of use for such a purpose” (Rome, December 4, 1878). Their interest in these objects was a spiritual one. As members of the New Church, Benade and Pitcairn embraced the ideas found in the writings of the Christian theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1668–1772). According to Swedenborg, the spiritual history of the world has been a succession of ecclesiae (“churches”) or spiritual epochs, each of which has received its own form of divine revelation. For these men, the tombs and temples of the ancient world were a genuine attempt to connect with the one true God, a God who has been accessible throughout human history.
With the generous gift of Glencairn and its contents, the Academy’s Museum was transformed almost overnight from a “cabinet of curiosities” to a museum of international importance. “For years, there had not been the appropriate space to display the Academy Museum’s impressive collection of treasures. So they were consigned to the Library attic. Now they have the setting they deserve, as well as the growing expertise and continued devotion of a dedicated staff and committee” (Bruce Henderson, Academy Museum Notes, Vol. 6, No. 3, March 1982).
Today Glencairn Museum’s mission honors the legacies of Bishop William Henry Benade, John Pitcairn, and Raymond Pitcairn by educating a diverse audience about the history of religion, using art and artifacts from a variety of cultures and time periods. The Museum seeks to build understanding between people of all beliefs through an appreciation of common spiritual history and values.
According to Professor Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, noted scholar of religious art at Georgetown University, Glencairn Museum “is unique in its dedication to collecting and displaying the art of world religions in the United States. The only other such museums of which I am aware are St. Mungo’s Museum of Art and Religion in Glasgow and the Museum of World Religions in Taipei. While there are museums that specialize in modern religious art, such as the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art in St. Louis and the Gallery of Modern Religious Art in Vatican City, their focus is narrower than the wide lens of Glencairn Museum” (Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, “From Instruction to the Education of Vision: Glencairn Museum,” American Arts Quarterly 21.4 (2004): 23–29).
So while Glencairn Museum marks its 30th anniversary this week, the roots of the Museum itself go much deeper, beginning with the travels of Benade and Pitcairn in the 1870s. These men would have been delighted to know that their adventure would one day lead to thousands of visitors having their own adventures within the walls of this remarkable museum of religious art and history.