Ten things you didn’t know about Durham Cathedral

Some of the most spectacular spaces inside Durham Cathedral are being transformed by a multi-million pound development project Open Treasure. These world-class exhibition galleries will open in 2016, providing access to the Cathedral’s internationally renowned collection of manuscripts and other priceless artefacts.

To whet your appetite, here are ten things about Durham Cathedral, its collections and the new exhibition spaces that you probably don’t know:

  1. Over 65,000 tons of sandstone were used to build Durham Cathedral, making it one of the top 100 geo-sites in the UK!
  2. Durham Cathedral marks a turning point in the history of architecture; it boasts the world’s first structural pointed arch.
  3. The ceiling and walls of Durham Cathedral were originally painted in vibrant colours, including blues, reds and gold. Traces of paint still remain on the walls and ceiling.
  4. The Monks’ Dormitory is the only intact monastic dormitory in England and the spectacular oak-beamed roof is rivalled only by Westminster Hall. This incredible space will mark the start of the new exhibition route due to open in 2016.
  5. The Great Kitchen is one of only two intact surviving monastic kitchens in England. It will eventually house the Relics of St Cuthbert as part of Open Treasure.
  6. Durham Cathedral boasts the best-preserved and documented medieval Benedictine Library in the British Isles, with manuscripts dating from the 6th-century onwards.
  7. Durham Cathedral holds three issues of Magna Carta in its collections, dating from 1216, 1225 and 1300. The 1216 Magna Carta is the only surviving copy of this issue.
  8. St Cuthbert’s wooden coffin held in the Cathedral’s collections is one of the oldest surviving examples of Anglo-Saxon wood-carving in the British Isles.
  9. Durham Cathedral holds the only surviving pieces of Anglo-Saxon embroidery in England; the stole and maniple offered in honour of St Cuthbert by King Athelstan in 934.
  10. In 1986, Durham Cathedral became the first English Cathedral to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Almost thirty years later, it remains one of Britain’s best-loved buildings.

A new year, a new adventure

A new year, a new adventure. I joined Durham Cathedral in January as the new Head of Collections and I have already learnt so much about this special institution and Open Treasure, the Cathedral’s development project which will enable the Cathedral’s most important and sacred treasures to be displayed, in some cases for the first time in their history! My role, and that of the Collections Team, is central to this project.

My key responsibility is the care, curation and documentation of the Cathedral’s library and objects, a vast array of treasures ranging from manuscripts and books to whale skeletons! The Library dates back to 635 AD, when it was founded on the holy island of Lindisfarne by St Aidan, and after many centuries found its way to Durham when St Cuthbert was brought here to his final resting place. Today the Library maintains significant collections of manuscripts, early printed volumes, archives material, historical music resources and modern books available to researchers to consult and study. There are also many thousands of objects under the care of the Cathedral, including a number of relics which belonged to St Cuthbert, an important collection of Anglo-Saxon stones, embroideries, church plate, furniture and more.

The new exhibition spaces will showcase many of the treasures under the Collections Team’s care. The Monks’ Dormitory, the former Great Kitchen and nearby spaces are being refurbished to allow for a new exhibition space where relics such as St Cuthbert’s coffin and the original Sanctuary Knocker will be on permanent display. We will also be able to display some of our important early manuscripts and books in a rolling programme of temporary exhibitions on a range of themes, complemented by loans from other institutions.

After only a few weeks here, no day is the same for me at the moment. While learning about the workings of a great Cathedral and how we can best serve the community, I am also helping to inform decisions about the exhibitions spaces to enable us to display our treasures and protect them as well through effective environmental standards. I also work with various teams to help develop outreach programmes to ensure the community can feel part of the Cathedral and access its activities. I liaise with colleagues to investigate the digitisation of some of the Cathedral’s collections, both manuscripts and objects, so as to make them more accessible. There are also a number of forthcoming exhibition loans of some of our collections to external institutions to arrange, but that is for another blog!

It is an enormous privilege and quite humbling to be charged with the responsibility for such important and special collections and I am excited about the opportunities that lie ahead!

Lisa Di Tommaso, Head of Collections

Transforming the Future of Durham Cathedral

Our exciting development project Open Treasure is transforming spaces inside the Cathedral as well as the way in which the Cathedral engages with visitors and the local communities. As part of our successful Heritage Lottery Fund application, we submitted a detailed activity plan; a programme of outreach and engagement, learning, and a series of public events and exhibitions. As Project Co-ordinator, I am working with many departments across the organisation to deliver this activity plan.

Co-ordinating such an ambitious project is no easy task! The physical transformation of spaces off the Claustral buildings, led by the Cathedral’s Property Team, is due to be completed in 2016. Ahead of this we are already working on the outreach and engagement programme and each department has an important part to play. With so many people involved, my role is both challenging and highly rewarding!

I started at the Cathedral three months ago, and progress has been made with projects that will create opportunities for local communities to get involved with Open Treasure.  An oral history project will offer people the chance to record their memories of Durham whilst Recreating the Community is providing local artists and local communities with the opportunity to produce unique artwork inspired by the Anglo-Saxon Treasures of St Cuthbert.  We have already held artists workshops in collaboration with Durham Creatives and can’t wait to get this project off the ground.  Other projects include reading groups for book-worms to a Young Curators project for ambitious young people with an interest in history and heritage.

With so many projects to co-ordinate, we’ve certainly got a lot of hard work ahead of us but it’s great to be part of such an ambitious project and you can be part of it too!  As Open Treasure develops, there will be many opportunities to get involved, so keep up-to-date at www.durhamcathedral.co.uk  You can also follow Durham Cathedral on Facebook and Twitter. Watch this space!

Claire Hyde

Open Treasure Project Co-ordinator (Activities)

Digging Deep into the Past

As many of you will know, Durham Cathedral is going through a period of great change at the moment as our Open Treasure project develops.

This project will transform the Cathedral’s future; a new exhibition route will be opened and the Treasures of St Cuthbert will be on display. But for me it is also a chance to look back into the Cathedral’s past and discover what has gone on here in the hundreds of years before us.

Ours is not the first generation to bring about change. Work in the Great Kitchen has revealed much more about John Lewin’s design as well as the monastic kitchen that preceded it, through archways and steps that we are exposing.

And it isn’t just the building itself that we are learning about. Layers of kitchen waste have been deposited over hundreds of years revealing a monastic diet rich in sea fish and oysters, as well showing us some of the butchering techniques used on livestock, visible through tool marks on the bones.

Excitement levels rose earlier in the year when we unearthed a small piece of Roman samian ware, which had been worked into a spindle whorl as well as a piece of 13th-century stained glass.

But not all of the archaeology work is about digging in dirt and I have also been working closely with the Cathedral’s joiners and stonemasons, particularly in the Monk’s Dormitory. Here we made our latest discovery; a set of folded newspapers hidden in a sealed void under a bookcase that we were dismantling. The papers date back to 1880, which has thrown up new questions, as the Cathedral’s records show that the library opened in 1856, after which it would have been impossible to get under the bookcases. The discovery suggests that perhaps the original library was smaller than the current one and was extended at a later date.

The discoveries we have made so far are all being documented, processed and analysed and we hope that some of our findings may make it into a future exhibition in the newly transformed spaces once the Open Treasure project is complete.

Norman Emery – Durham Cathedral Archaeologist

Opening the Door on Open Treasure

Durham Cathedral is being transformed. As our major development project Open Treasure unfolds, we are approaching a new era in the life of Durham Cathedral, an era which will focus on the interpretation of this ancient building and its preservation for future generations.

As the title suggests, ‘Open Treasure’ is about openness.  The current phase of the project will open doors to previously hidden spaces within the Cathedral, resulting in greater access to medieval buildings and the outstanding collections that Durham Cathedral has acquired over the centuries.

In a more symbolic sense, ‘Open Treasure’ will open hearts and minds to the wonders of this magnificent Cathedral and the wonderful community of Durham in which it lies.

We aspire to welcome people of all ages and faiths to learn about the Cathedral, to enjoy it and to be inspired by this fabulous place.

We want all our visitors not simply to appreciate our treasures but to glimpse the ‘treasure’ of this Cathedral in its deepest sense: its community of faith down the ages and in the present, and the gospel to which this place has borne witness for more than a millennium.

As I write, contractors are on site and the hugely complex task of transforming breathtaking medieval buildings into exhibition spaces has begun. Life around the Cathedral will not be normal for some time, but at the end of it, we shall have facilities to be truly proud of, and second to none among cathedrals.

Thank you for your generous support for this great project. We are still fundraising! Please continue to help, and encourage others to do the same at www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/donate

Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham

The Shrine of St Cuthbert; A living place of worship, welcome and hospitality at the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.