Between 17 November 1971 and 30 January 1972, the Victoria and Albert Museum staged an exhibition called ‘Victorian Church Art’. To their dismay, the curators found widespread ignorance about the contents of the UK’s 40,000 places of worship. In theory, priests and churchwardens have joint responsibility for maintaining a church property register, listing the land belonging to the church; all the fixtures, fittings, and furniture; and all the alterations, additions, and repairs carried out to the church, land, and contents. In reality, these records vary greatly in how comprehensive and detailed they are. The V&A asked: ‘Would it be possible for groups of volunteers to acquire the expertise to record and archive the artefacts inside churches to a professional standard?’.
The organisation that took up the challenge was NADFAS – the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies, now known as The Arts Society. Starting in 1973, NADFAS began organising its members (today numbering in excess of 90,000) into church recording teams who have, over the last 48 years, recorded around 2,000 churches.
Copies of the records are deposited with the church itself, the local County Record Office or History Centre, the Church Buildings Council in Westminster, the V&A National Art Library, and the Historic England Archives in Swindon. Last year, The Arts Society created a new and independent charity to continue this work, called the Church Recording Society, with the aim of recruiting its teams more widely and involving many more volunteers – a response in part to the accelerating rate at which places of worship are being closed.
What can you expect if you decide to volunteer? Church Recorders work in groups of 10-15 people, supported by a skilled photographer. They research and document the memorials, stonework, flooring, woodwork, metalwork, windows, textiles, paintings, organ, books, and historical records. Objects are photographed, as well as measured and described. Research is undertaken to identify the date of manufacture, the names of the maker or designer, and the donor wherever possible. Typically, it takes around three years to complete a record.
The reward is the knowledge that you are creating an inventory of great value to historians, getting to know one church in very great detail, and gaining knowledge that will make visiting other churches all the more enjoyable.
Further information: www.churchrecordingsociety.org.uk
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Text & images: C Catling.