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7 min read

The bold museum reflecting a “moonlight” experience of the unseeable

Robert Wright visits the UK's only Faith Museum, in Bishop Auckland, and hears how its funder hopes to inspire reflection on the divine.

Robert is a journalist at the Financial Times.

 

A art installaton showing purple and pink flame-like shapes moving in a darkened room
The Eidolon art installation.

It takes a moment to grow accustomed to walking in the dark of the long, steeply roofed room that houses Mat Collishaw’s art installation Eidolon. But the artwork’s impact is immediate. Two huge, moving images in the middle of the room show a blue iris flower. It is being engulfed by flames but not consumed. Speakers play, in Latin, a story from the Hebrew bible’s Book of Daniel in which three young Jewish men survive being thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship the Babylonian king. The artwork is a rare successful attempt to capture in modern art the essence of Christ’s crucifixion and the Christian tradition of martyrdom, with its roots in earlier Jewish beliefs.

Watch Eidolon

Eidolon is one of the highlights of the UK’s first Faith Museum, a bold project opened on October 7 in Bishop Auckland castle, the historic residence of the Bishops of Durham. The museum forms part of The Auckland Project, a series of initiatives in Bishop Auckland, north-west of Darlington, being funded by Jonathan Ruffer, a Christian and successful City investor. Ruffer’s childhood home was outside nearby Middlesbrough. The new institution aims to tell the story of 6,000 years of faith in Great Britain, starting with the Gainford cup and ring stone. The stone, found 90 years ago 10 miles from Bishop Auckland, may date from as early as 4,000BCE. It features carvings regarded as the earliest evidence of religious practice in Great Britain. 

Jonathan Ruffer.

A man stands in a formal dining room that has traditional paintings on the walls
Jonathan Ruffer, in Bishop Auckland Castle.

Ruffer, however, declines to link the museum’s contents to his own faith or an explicitly Christian message. He insists that he is merely seeking to advance discussion of faith in a society where it is little debated but remains a potent force. In the living room of Castle Lodge, his home in the castle grounds, Ruffer compares the contemporary taboo about religion with the very different mores of the 19th century. 

“Nobody talked about sex in Victorian times,” he says. “It’s impossible to imagine that because the public world was silent on it, it was not as much a guiding force as it is today. I think that’s where faith is now.” 

He adds that the 10-year process of establishing the museum has made it “absolutely apparent” to him why there are no other similar institutions. 

“What is a museum for?” he asks. “It’s to gawp at things and if you think what is the subject matter of a faith museum, it’s God. In whatever form and shape that you believe that God to be, you cannot see that topic.” 

The museum is nevertheless rich in sometimes poignant objects that the curators call “witnesses” of faith. They include the Binchester Ring, a ring with Christian symbols dating from the third century of the Christian era. The ring, found only a mile from the museum, is regarded as the earliest known evidence for Christian practice in Britain. There is a small slate, engraved on one side, that served as an altar for Recusant Roman Catholics while their Church was out in the cold and had to stay hidden during the Reformation years. The slate could be turned over and disguised as a normal roof slate when not in use. The museum has on loan the Bodleian Bowl – a rare example of a ceremonial vessel used by one of England’s Jewish communities before King Edward I expelled the group in 1290. 

Ruffer says the impact of the objects – many on loan from other museums - comes from their histories. 

“There’s a great power in the objects that we have,” he says. 

Eileen Harrop.

A priest stands in front of lead glass windows and carved seats.
Eileen Harrop, entrepreneur priest and museum advisor.

Among the advisers on the museum’s establishment was Eileen Harrop, a Church of England priest originally from Singapore and of Chinese origin. She was appointed an “entrepreneur priest” in 2016 to work with Ruffer on The Auckland Project. Meeting in the castle’s former library, she says the museum avoids suggesting all faiths are the same, while also steering clear of Christian proselytising. Harrop, now the vicar of four parishes around Bishop Auckland, expects the museum to have a powerful effect on visitors. 

“It allows for people to experience the God who led Jonathan here,” she says. “It allows for people to enter into all the different ways in which people can identify something about faith and then it’s up to God.” 

A visit’s emotional impact comes largely from the new institution’s first floor, devoted to works created by contemporary artists exploring faith. Some of the most powerful exhibits are black-and-white pictures in which Khadija Saye, a young British-Gambian artist, explores possible uses for religious objects belonging to members of her family, some Muslim and some Christian. Saye lost her life in the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire. 

A series of works by Christian painter Roger Wagner has proved particularly timely. The museum opened the same day that Hamas terrorists started the current Israel-Gaza war with their attack inside Israel. The paintings translate stories from the Christian New Testament to the contemporary, riot-scarred occupied West Bank. 

Eidolon is among the works on the first floor. Harrop calls it an “amazing installation”, particularly for its retelling of the story of Daniel. 

“It relates a story… of what was going on in that particular experience of the faithful person called and protected with his companions in relation with God and the power of faith,” she says. 

Ruffer, meanwhile, shies away from expressing spiritual aspirations. 

Asked how he hopes people will respond to the museum, he says: “I couldn’t care less – that’s up to them. I have many faults but a sense of wanting to tell people or persuade people how they should be is very low down the list.” 

Yet Ruffer is clear that he received a clear, divine call to come to Bishop Auckland. He was first drawn to the area by his enthusiasm for Spanish art and his determination to prevent the Church of England’s Church Commissioners, then owners of the castle, from selling its prize artworks – life-size, 17th century portraits by Francisco de Zurbarán known as Jacob and his 12 Sons. The paintings, saved for Bishop Auckland in 2011 by a multi-million-pound donation by Ruffer, remain in the castle. But the Zurbarán link inspired Ruffer to establish a Spanish Gallery, dedicated to art from Spain, on Bishop Auckland’s Market Place. 

“I came here really through a calling,” Ruffer says. “I felt the need really to drop everything and come up to somewhere in the north-east, to be part of a community.” 

Ruffer’s engagement with the town deepened when the Church Commissioners announced, also in 2011, that they planned to sell the castle. Auckland Castle was formerly a seat of both ecclesiastical and secular power when the Bishops of Durham were prince-bishops – uniquely in England, both secular governors and bishops. The bishops lost the last of their secular powers in 1836. Ruffer bought the castle and transferred ownership to a newly established Auckland Castle Trust, which became The Auckland Project. 

“I’ve heard from people who have through it who have said they can’t really put their finger on what it is, but they must go back again,” 

Ruffer accepts there are issues with trying to capture the imagination of Bishop Auckland’s 25,000 inhabitants from inside a castle whose imposing entranceway symbolises its symbolic role as a seat of sometimes oppressive power. 

“That sense of power is felt as a reality by people,” he says. “But it’s empty. Power has long since moved away from the prince-bishops and then the bishops.” 

The castle’s unique history nevertheless makes it the ideal setting for the museum, according to Ruffer. Exhibits are housed both in a wing of the historic castle and a new, purpose-built extension. Ruffer says the castle was a far better place to site a faith museum aimed at raising questions than somewhere more explicitly linked to a specific faith such as a cathedral close. 

“Auckland Castle has been intricately involved with faith for nearly 1,000 years and yet it hasn’t been a place of worship,” he says. “It has a chapel but it’s ecclesiastical without being a cathedral, church or minster. So it seemed to me that that made it very appropriate for a faith museum.” 

The early signs, according to both Ruffer and Harrop, are that the new institution is encouraging reflection among visitors. Ruffer says the museum has responded to the “elemental need” for faith. He adds that the positive reaction so far vindicates the initiative to establish the museum, which he says has brought together objects and described them “without any directional guidance as to which works”. 

Harrop reports that visitors seem to feel the need to experience the museum a second time after a first visit. 

“I’ve heard from people who have through it who have said they can’t really put their finger on what it is, but they must go back again,” she says. 

Ruffer identifies the museum’s power by saying that it gives people an easier experience of the divine than would otherwise be available to them. He compares the experience of encountering God through the museum to looking at the light of the sun as reflected in soft moonlight. That, he points out, is far easier than looking painfully and directly at the sun. 

“The thing that changes people is to be confronted with something bigger than yourself,” he says. 

Interview
Change
War and peace
11 min read

Eye witness: life and death in Gaza’s European Hospital

Returning plastic surgeon Tim Goodacre reports on the struggles, the despair and the dignity of the people and the medics of Gaza during their long nightmare.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Medical staff stand beside a bed in which a man lies with an amputated leg.
Medics confer about a patient in Gaza's European Hospital.
Tim Goodacre

Tim Goodacre is a vastly experienced plastic surgeon who recently spent two weeks in a hospital in Khan Younis treating the extensive injuries of the people of Gaza. I caught up with him to ask about his experience there.  

Graham: Let me start by asking what was it like getting into Gaza? What was the process and how difficult was it to actually get in in the first place? 

Tim: We went in as an emergency medical team under the under the auspices of the World Health Organisation, which is coordinated with UN OCHR. It was easy obviously to get to Cairo. Then we joined a convoy, a group of cars convening in the small hours of the morning in Cairo and then being escorted across the Sinai desert. We got to the border in time for dusk. What was staggering at that stage was seeing the number of lorries lined up, waiting on the Egyptian side to get in. They were two deep on one side, one deep on the other with a thin passageway through which we could drive through for mile after mile after mile of these lorries. 

Was this humanitarian aid sent from other nations? 

Absolutely. It was aid labelled from different countries or agencies. Crossing Rafah the next morning was all pretty haphazard and chaotic, but we met our driver on the other side. We then had to travel to Khan Yunis on the coast road because it was the safest part of the south Gaza strip. We went through a route called the Philadelphia Road, which is a gap between the two borders. As we drove along, we immediately were jumped on by some young lads who had put razor wire across the road. We picked up two of them who hung onto the car each side, with our window s firmly shut. As we sped along, they were our ‘protectors’, taking a pitiful sum to ensure that we would not be stopped at further razor wire and our vehicle plundered. It was our first experience of the lawlessness that's inherent at the moment in Gaza. 

All along that side of the road there were people putting up new tents after a recent further mass displacement, as far as the eye could see. It made a huge impact on me - the devastating plight of the people who were there. It looked like those pictures of Glastonbury or Woodstock, where as far as you could see, the rolling fields or sand dunes or whatever were totally covered in makeshift dwellings. It was pretty cold and windy. And subsequently, while we were there, it rained an awful lot and your heart just went out to these people.  

So these were people living in tents and temporary shelters? 

 Well, not really. They're barely tents. They're just finding flimsy bits of wood, putting them up and nailing them together. And these are not just the very poorest of the poor. This is everybody. Many of them were people from very well-to-do houses whose families have been displaced. I've worked in many parts of the world where there's poverty, but I’ve never seen so many people displaced.  

One of the things that's remarkable however is the relative cleanliness, the desire to maintain dignity in the most appalling circumstances. But a young lad who’s now a young doctor (who I have worked with for a decade now) came to see me and he was the most dejected person I've ever met. He said to me ‘they've taken away my dignity’. The abject pain in his face was something that I won't forget.  

You’ve been to Gaza many times before. What was different about this time? And you've seen it in the aftermath of previous wars and conflicts. What was what was particularly different this time? 

 It's utterly different – it’s the displaced population with nowhere to go and seeking shelter. When I first went in 2014 after Operation Protective Edge, I was taken to a huge neighbourhood of northeast Gaza, which had been flattened and at the time the impact on me was extraordinary. When I’ve visited subsequently over the last decade, they will show you this bombed out building and that flattened area, but I've never seen such vast numbers of displaced people. On the second day we moved into the European Gaza Hospital (EGH), which is where we were going to stay for the two weeks we were there. Inching slowly along amidst endless hordes of people walking around, seeing the dejection, despair, the hopelessness with nowhere to go - this for me is what defines this whole episode and makes it very different from others. This is in no way a diminution of other conflicts and human tragedies, but when there was bombing in Baghdad or in Kiev and Ukraine, people might go into underground shelters - there are places they can perhaps go to escape. Even in massacres such as in Darfur or Congo, there are places to run to. There is nothing like that in Gaza. 

Was there a pattern to the kind of medical emergencies and wounds that you were having to deal with? 

 The vast majority of injuries were the impact of high explosives, so we naturally saw quite a lot of burns, although the majority of severe burns alone were being managed by the Red Cross team also at EGH. Some of them were people who had been crushed and pulled out of buildings which had collapsed. But that was that was the minority. The majority of our cases were direct results of bomb blasts. Every time you hear a bomb, somebody is being killed, yet many others are caught on the fringe of that. Shrapnel travels at astronomical speeds and hits people in in a completely random way. These injuries are devastating. There were scores of people coming in with limbs missing. Seeing somebody with a leg off at the thigh, a leg off below the knee, an arm ripped off was all too common. It was hard to take in - you have to become somewhat immune to the backstory behind each dreadful injury, and concentrate on the carnage in front of you, to be able to deal with the constant onslaught of cases. 

How were the medics coping with it? You were there for two weeks. They are there for months, presumably on end? 

 I think it's incredibly important that we don't focus on the visiting medics. I usually peeled off at about 9pm or so in the evening - I had to go to bed and had to have a rest, but there were people trying to work through the night. What I want to focus on is the local people, particularly a young colleague, Ahmed, who was 36 years-old. He was statesmanlike in his ability to pull things together. His family are actually mostly in Dublin as they've got Irish passports. I cannot tell you how much admiration I have for that young Gazan man who shared his room with me.  

He has been managing to create a team who work alongside him, since many of the staff who had worked at the hospital before (some of whom we had trained over several years in limb reconstruction) were not there. That is because they might not be alive, or having to support their displaced families, or simply are afraid to travel in daily to the hospital, or whatever. It is a huge demand on individual doctors to leave a family group (who invariably try to stay together, so that if they are bombed, they all die together and do not have to be a sole survivor.) to then work away from such possible loss of all their family members. It's an incredible sacrifice to be working in medical care when your family are all huddled together in a place where they may all lose their life, and that gets to them in the end.  

The orthopaedic side is almost on its knees. Most of the system in the hospital is utterly on its knees. There were early years medical students who had been taught quickly how to manage wounds and to skin graft. They haven't got any pay, but some people have given a little money to my colleague’s account to try and give them some support. There were IT students and all sorts of others pulling together. How people can work in in such adversity and make things happen is quite a testament to the to the strength of humanity.  

It all begins to play on your mind, and you start thinking is there another one coming? And you get no warning when the attacks are unleashed. 

What was it like living under the bombardment, which was presumably pretty constant during your time there? 

There may have been the odd period of four or five hours when there was no sound of close bombardment at all, although during that time there was probably small arms fire going on somewhere. But otherwise, it was relentless. One became somewhat used to the bombs in the distance, but when they're close by… Every time one of these bombs goes off, there are people dying. And that really that played on your mind. So huge numbers were seeking shelter anywhere in the vicinity of the hospital. If you can imagine a hospital corridor where every route is full of makeshift shelters, and you just go up around a stairwell and on the corner of each stair, there will be a family which will be hanging drapes up, trying to find some sort of privacy and dignity among the utter destitution.  

I found it very difficult to sleep during those times. The hospital is in a quadrant, a square. On one corner there was a supermarket which latterly was hit by an F16 delivered weapon. You could hear the sound of the rocket go off alongside the scream of the low flying fighter jet, and the whole building shook. There's also the incessant sound of drones. It all begins to play on your mind, and you start thinking is there another one coming? And you get no warning when the attacks are unleashed.  

It made me realise what soldiers undergo when they get what used to be called shell shock. There, even if you're not injured yourself, this constant shocking damage gets to you. I knew we had the knowledge that after a short time, we would be getting out - but it made me realise how tough Ahmed and others working there have to be. It will be having a devastating impact on the population, and for a nation.  

I imagine the psychological effects of that are going to last for a long time in the lives of these people. You don't get over that quickly. If you live with that level of tension, thinking any moment now, I could die, that must stay with you and the marks of that stay for a long time. 

I'm sure that's true. I'm not an expert in PTSD and things like that. Ahmed is a Muslim and said to me more than once that when you believe in an afterlife, you believe that your time will come at some point, and you accept that. We don't know when it is or where it is, but it will come. I have frequently wondered whether any of the fighter jet pilots have ever experienced themselves what it’s like to be underneath the impact of one of their weapons? Having felt somewhat what it is like to be on the other side of such an onslaught, I do wonder whether very many of those involved in ordering conflict really have any kind of understanding of what devastation feels like, when there is nowhere to run? I fear for what this conflict does to the humanity of both sides. 

I genuinely don't feel brave, I don't. I'm not the kind of person who sees lights in the sky, but I know it was God’s calling to go there. It was simply the right thing, 

Did you see any sign of hope or anything that gave you a sense of the way out of this? 

 The sense of hope is within the people who are there. There are many people who say they still really don't want to leave. They feel this passionately. It's their land. They do want to see a new Gaza. I tried to be somebody who lifted spirits. Communities can be rebuilt and there may be a new future which will come from the dust. I've been in touch with people in my University Medical school in Oxford to see whether we can do something about getting these young people's education continued.  

You can imagine there wasn’t a lot of laughter in the whole environment, but on the few occasions when I did gather together with my colleague’s small group of young students and volunteers, usually late into the night, we would eat whatever food goodies they had to hand, and their sense of fun would burst out. Together there was a very strong sense of community amongst them. 

How did your Christian faith inform the way you interacted with the situation? How did your Christian faith help you process what you were seeing and experiencing there? 

 I must say it was a deeply spiritual time for me. It was absolutely powerful to me to know that God cares and loves each and every one of these people. I longed to organise a football game with the kids. I was told that they had tried to do that, and it had become too dangerous. So there seemed to be no organisation around looking after the well-being of the children, their education, or the deeper impact on them of this war. People were jammed into the hospital, obviously because it was seen as a safe space, and it was humbling to think that us (as foreign workers) being there made them feel somewhat safer. It humbled me immensely.  

I felt nothing but a sense of privilege in being a witness to all this. I was reading the Psalms regularly in daily prayer. There's also something about that land being the place where God himself suffered in Christ and went through his own agony, and that the Holy Family escaped through Gaza to Egypt.  

I genuinely don't feel brave, I don't. I'm not the kind of person who sees lights in the sky, but I know it was God’s calling to go there. It was simply the right thing, a privilege and an honour to have such access which comes with having my particular background of skills and past history with Gaza. God is over all these matters, and we are compelled to respond. 

 

Tim Goodacre is a Reconstructive Plastic Surgeon based in Oxford, with extensive experience of working in diverse environments outside the UK. He is immediate past Vice President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.