Earlier this year, the Order of Freemasons under the Grand East of the Netherlands announced plans to move its administrative headquarters and historical collections (library, archive and museum) to a ‘central location in the Netherlands’ by 2011. It invited the representative bodies of lodges in each province to submit a proposal for a ‘National Masonic Center’: a combined Freemason’s Hall, national headquarters and collection facility. The plan will have a significant impact on the future of the historical collections, currently housed in the Cultural Masonic Centre ‘Prins Frederik’ in The Hague (C.M.C.).
The Regio-Convent Den Haag (the body representing all lodges in and around The Hague) requested a formal advice on the future of the collections of the OVN foundation. The OVN provided a report, which underlined the great importance of these collections as cultural heritage on a national level, as well as a significant study collection on an international level.
The report was in places critical of the policies of the Order regarding the conservation, heritage management and public function of its collections, housed in the C.M.C. It further pointed out, that the collection had historically grown in The Hague since 1734, as the Order was founded here and remained closely tied to the Dutch Royal family and government, as well as numerous prominent historical figures and organizations based in this city. The collection is historically, physically and logically inextricably bound to The Hague. It forms a 'fitting puzzle piece' to the collections of the nearby National Library, National Archives, the Royal Family Archive and Museum Meermanno in The Hague, which all keep archives of historical figures and organizations which were involved in the Order. To move the C.M.C. to another location in another part of the country would 'rip' the collection from its historical and geographical context and sever ties with related collections and heritage organizations, but also move it further away from the Leiden University chair for the study of freemasonry.
The report proposed the development of a stable, long-term vision for professional heritage management, such as: cooperation with academic and professional heritage organizations; applying for heritage and cultural subsidies; realizing a more professional level of conservation and exploitation, as well as extending the public and academic function of the collections in the intended National Masonic Centre. In order to do so, the collections could be housed separately from the Order's headquarters and lodge rooms and form an independent organizational unit. A strong plea was made to re-examine the relocation plans, as the available options in The Hague (such as remaining in the current location, acquiring other accommodation in The Hague, or even sharing accommodation with nearby heritage institutions and university collections) have not been considered.
The Regio-Convent Den Haag carefully considered the report. However, it decided not to present a relocation plan, but instead made a strong plea for postponement of the plan. Unfortunately, this plea was rejected at the yearly meeting of the Grand Lodge and its lodges in June 2008. Of the proposals of other provinces, the plans for relocation to Bilthoven or Arnhem will now be discussed in more detail at next year's meeting, implying the loss of the collections for The Hague.
Scholars in the field of study are alarmed and concerned about these events. Most of the voting lodge members are unfamiliar with the history and contents of the collection, as well as the complex factors involved in heritage conservation and collection management. Although the decision process is democratic and the decision about a private collection obviously lies with its owners, the future of unique and important national heritage is at stake here. One would expect heritage organizations or deparments to have been involved as external advisors at an early stage of any relocation plans of a collection of this size and international importance.
Hopefully, other options will be considered before a final decision is made in June 2009. As several other Dutch masonic Orders have indicated that they are considering new plans for their historical collections, the OVN foundation is calling for a joint effort to form a professional heritage centre in The Hague.