London: Museum of the Order of St. John

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Oh, to think I had such grand plans for London Open Weekend.  I was at last going to be able to see inside all those amazing hidden places I’d heard about, like the abandoned station at Aldwych, and the ruins of Alexander Pope‘s grotto.  But my hopes were cruelly dashed in a manner that reminded me of everything I hate about London.  Firstly, the coolest things, like the old Tube stations, weren’t even open to the public, presumably for health and safety reasons.  Other things, like Pope’s Grotto, required advance booking, and even though I tried to book a place shortly after the Open Weekend list was released, they were already booked up, thanks to the millions of other people who live in London who apparently instantly sign up for these things to spoil everyone else’s good time.  Finally, the few places that allowed walk-in visitors had hour-long+ queues.  Not very open at all then.  As a result, I spent the weekend going to a few lesser known sites, some which will probably feature in a later post, but for today, I’m going to talk about the Museum of the Order of St. John.

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I’m not entirely sure why I chose to visit this museum on Open Weekend, when it’s open to the public anyway, but as I said, most of the normally-closed-to-the-public places were nigh on impossible to gain access to, so I was on a mission that particular weekend to find creepy places for a special October post, and I recollected that the Order of St. John had a crypt of some sort.  The deal with the Order of St. John, as far as I can recall from the history provided in the museum, is that it is has similar beginnings to the Knights Templar, with roots in the Crusades, but the Order of St. John has a specific focus on healing and healthcare.  After getting booted out of the Holy Land, they moved to Malta and founded Valletta, and still have an official order in Rome.  As they were a Catholic Order, they were dissolved in England under Henry VIII and the creation of Anglicism, but were again given a royal charter by Victoria, and have re-inhabited this space in Clerkenwell ever since (though in the interim, it was a pub amongst other things, and Hogarth lived there for a while as a child, which almost made up for not having the chance to get the behind-the-scenes tour of his home in Chiswick).  The building contains a small museum that recounts all this information, and interesting though it is, I suppose the highlights are the set of rooms located upstairs.

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These include the cavernous Chapter Hall, where banquets take place, and the Council Chamber, lined with plaques commemorating former Royal Patrons of the Order.  The Hall has the names of its patrons wrapped around the room chronologically, as well as portraits of some key members, and a splendid curio cabinet that appeared to be inlaid with tortoiseshell, yet contained no curiosities, which seemed like a bit of a waste of space to me.  If I had a cabinet that fine, I’d be sure to fill it with the oddest taxidermy and body parts in jars that I could find (probably part of the reason why no one will ever give me a curio cabinet like that).  The plaques in the Council Chamber commemorated most of the deceased members of the Royal Family from Victorian times onward, including some lesser known ones, so I had a swell time searching the walls for some of my obscure favourites, like Prince Eddy.

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Due to what I can only assume is my own stupidity/lack of observational skills, I completely missed seeing the church, and thus the crypt, which I believe are housed in an adjacent building, so the Order of St. John wasn’t creepy at all; just rather magnificent in a stuffy, buttoned-up way.  Back downstairs, I took time to admire the collection of medals, and noted that one of them was awarded to a fellow for capturing a mad dog after it had bitten three people, and “several dogs,” which amused me as most of the other ones were awarded for far grander reasons, though I suppose saving people from a mad dog is perhaps no less worthy, especially if it were a really big, scary dog.  The back room talked more about the medical work the Order of St. John has done from WWI onwards, which is really the point of the Order, more so than hosting fabulous banquets.  They are currently most well known for their eye hospital in Jerusalem which treats anyone in need, and of course St. John Ambulance, which was instrumental in organising an ambulance service in Britain back in the Victorian era.

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Although the Order of St. John Museum is included on the list of medical museums in London, I think its main focus is charitable works rather than medicine, so you shouldn’t come expecting loads of medical instruments, or indeed, stuff in jars, like you’ll find at some of my favourite medical museums in London.  Instead, it’s a solemn place with an old and venerable history.  However, this solemnity does affect the museum experience, and it is thus nowhere near as fascinating as most other “medical” museums I’ve visited.  I’ll give it a 3/5, because I do think the upstairs rooms are certainly impressive, and worth seeing, and the museum was nicely put together, if a bit lacking in excitement.  I’ll try to return to visit the crypt in future, as maybe that will cause me to bump up my rating a bit.

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