By Jessica Brodie
South Carolina Methodist history lovers are reeling this month after news that the World Methodist Council Museum has closed.
The museum, housed at nearby Lake Junaluska, was established in 1956 and has one of the largest collections of artifacts from the early days of Methodism, including rare paintings, significant historical Methodist findings and artifacts from the time of Jesus.
“This is causing serious concerns in historical circles,” said Joyce Plyler, chair of the South Carolina Conference Historical Society, noting there is both regional and worldwide interest in the museum. “It’s going to be a great loss to South Carolina, as well as other conferences in the Southeastern Jurisdiction.”
Plyler said she and others felt “blindsided” by the decision, which was announced by the World Methodist Council on the museum’s website, https://methodistmuseum.com.
“They’ve had financial difficulties for some time, but that’s nothing new in museum world,” Plyler said. “This museum is unique, and to lose it in this manner is I think going to be a mistake.”
Plyler said the museum, which was free and open to the public, contains many valuable items, from original letters by Methodism founder John Wesley to busts and Staffordshire pottery.
The website statement was also published in the World Methodist Council’s “First Friday Letter,” acknowledging the decision was made by the CEO and General Secretary, Bishop Ivan Abrahams; CFO and Treasurer Kirby Hickey; and the World Methodist Council Steering Committee, comprising 28 members from around the world.
“The steering committee has conducted a number of studies and assessments and must look forward to the future and stability of the World Methodist Council,” the statement reads in part, stating a museum archive committee has been formed to assist with the valuing and recommending of placement of museum items.
“Every effort will be made to distribute items in a fair and equitable manner,” the statement said, noting museums and colleges/universities that will share the Methodist and Wesleyan story with the public will be given preference in the distribution. Smaller museums that help get the story to underserved populations will receive impartial treatment with larger museums and universities.
“Right now, change seems to be the only constant,” Abrahams said in his First Friday Letter. “We need to respond to the shifts happening around us and extend our peripheral vision to survive in an ever-changing world. Despite a change in management, professional assessments and bold initiatives to sustain the World Methodist Museum at Lake Junaluska, we are sad to announce the museum’s closure. According to a recent survey by the American Alliance of Museums, as COVID-19 continues to surge across the U.S., museums are losing mission dollars leaving about one-third of all institutions at risk of permanent closure.”
Abrahams pledged to keep the public updated regarding the deaccession process.
Dr. A.V. Huff, South Carolina conference historian, has been serving on the Friends of the Museum’s organization board the last three years and said the closure is “no great shock” to him. Between denominational budget cuts over the last 10-15 years and an overall decrease in funds, Huff said, “It was just very clear over the long haul it was not going to work, and then came the pandemic, and that was an additional shock to whole process.”
Huff said the closure is especially sad because it’s one of the major collections of Wesleyan Methodist artifacts in the world and is on par with the museum at Wesley Chapel in London, the archives at Drew University and the library at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.
Huff said his dominant concern right now are the items in the museum, which will go to other places.
“I want to be sure the collections are cared for and, wherever they end up, they are looked after and available to people,” Huff said.
Dr. Phillip Stone, conference archivist and archivist for Wofford College, said the closing of the museum shows how important it is that the museums and archives that are engaged in church history work have the resources they need to succeed.
“Museums and archives can have such valuable materials that help tell our story, and we shouldn’t see them as a luxury,” Stone said. “The professionals who work in these areas really do see sharing their collections with the public and helping them find their own stories in the museum.
“A lot of museums and libraries and archives have suffered during the pandemic, and many of them were not in great financial shape beforehand. It can be really hard work to preserve the artifacts and papers, help visitors and researchers use them and do programming on a shoestring budget.”
Cathy Ford, president of the South Carolina Conference United Methodist Women, said the museum will be sorely missed and that the conference women had often visited it when they were at Lake Junaluska for their spiritual growth retreats.
“One of many very special places on the Lake Junaluska campus is the World Council Methodist Museum,” Ford said. “A treasure trove of meaningful historic artifacts, it has increased my knowledge and passion for discovering and understanding our Methodist heritage. From viewing a portable pulpit, to life-sized portraits, shelves full of fragile ceramics with many of our Methodist founding fathers in action, preaching and on horseback, to the oldest Roman coin from Jesus’s time on earth, this space has been a gift to my eyes and my heart. I am thankful to have visited the museum. It will be missed! May every item relocate safely to new locations and be seen by other students and scholars of Methodism.”
Herman Lightsey, former chair of the conference United Methodist Men and now president of UMMen National Association of Conference Presidents, also expressed sadness on the closure of the museum.
“This is just one more casualty of our divided church and the pandemic,” Lightsey said, noting the UMC’s Publishing House’s headquarters also closed this year.
The World Methodist Council statement said individuals, museums, schools and venues interested in asking for museum artifacts should contact the World Methodist Council Office by email at [email protected].
By Jessica Brodie