On the Sacred and the Secular

I am giving a lecture tomorrow at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Norfolk and I am having the best time preparing. I don’t want to give too much away for those readers planning on attending, but here’s a hint: I’m talking about secular devotional items. Say what?! That’s right — secular devotional objects. We have quite a few sacred devotional objects, but I’m pretty sure I can make a case for our secular ones, too. It’s a new idea I cooked up about our collection, and I’m having a blast exploring the nuances of this different perspective.

I’m basing my lecture around a letter written by Mrs. Sloane in 1934, the full text of which I want to share with you today. I get a little choked up every time I read it, and I hope you will enjoy reflecting on it a little:

March 3rd, 1934

Dear Major Truxtun,

Your spoken thought yesterday that the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences was an “obsession” with me, led to a self analysis, for it is wise not to permit any one thing to obsess one’s thoughts.

Sir Hans Sloane, an ancestor of ours, in 1753 started the British Museum with his library of 50,000 volumes. Since then that Museum has reached out to all the arts, as well as letters, including archeological research, etc., but enough of this.

John Taylor Johnson of New York, a friend of my Father’s, was president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for many years, and all my childhood, until I left New York to make Norfolk my home, the Metropolitan was a treasure house to me. For twenty five years I have contributed to its support and have been in close touch with its work through its monthly bulletins of activities, accessions, donations, etc., and have also been in intimate touch with several of its departments and their curators.

Further north, the Fogg Museum and the Isabella Gardner Venetian Palace have been opened to me from cellar to attic for instruction and suggestions, their Directors being friends. Nearer home, the Freer Gallery is also one of my happy hunting grounds, the Curator and Assistant Curator both being friends of ours.

William Sloane Coffin, the late President of the Metropolitan in New York, was a relative of ours, and locally my husband has been President of the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences [editor’s note: now the Chrysler Museum] since 1926. So you see Museums are more than an “obsession” with me — they have always been a part of my daily life and are “bred in the bone” and I’m proud of it. They are as much a part of the normal structure of my thoughts as politics are of yours — and their possessions and activities as well known to me as the possessions and activities of my own household.

Having been taught in my homeland to regard the south and particularly Virginia, the cradle of early American Art treasures, you cannot imagine how funny it was to me, when I first arrived here, a young girl — to find Norfolk hugging to itself in little groups each cultural and lovely thing, rather than reaching out and sharing their riches with their less fortunate neighbors.

Although this town has been my happy home for the major years of my life, I am compelled sometimes to reluctantly view it with the eyes of an outsider. My wonder is that Norfolk, three hundred year old, can be so blind to the cultural, industrial and economic advantages of Museum Activities. Charleston, S.C. has the oldest museum in our country and there are many others all through the south — but our town is loath to support one or even give it hearty encouragement. I wonder why for it doesn’t require an awful lot of money. My only explanation for it is that no one brought up without Museum advantages has the faintest idea of his loss — nor can realize the opportunities they are denying the present generation by persistently closing their thoughts to Museum subjects.

Museum work is one of expansion. It exists only to give and share with others — its ideals are lofty and far reaching, it aims to help by giving freely of intelligence, time, material, energy and finance. You will find this and only this among all Museum workers — paid or volunteer — a record hard to equal.

The missionary work that has to be done in Norfolk, above any other city I know of, to present this subject, is amazing. Yet the conviction that the thing is essentially right and necessary, is so strong that no one whose interest is once aroused, ever quite. This is the story and this is why Museums have a growing hold on civic life and will carry on for all time.  Even Soviet Russia is in the field — recognizing the work is primarily for the people and not the favored classes. The idea of tomb like houses for art treasures, etc., is a prehistoric hone, for Museums are now living, active centers, where all classes, ages and both sexes come for help and productive recreation. They are a recognized and vital part of civic life and preserve for future generations documents of the historic past.

To you, representing Old Norfolk, we look for much support and encouragement. Please help us.

Faithfully yours,

Mrs. Florence K. Sloane


Mrs. Sloane as a young bride, 1893:

And now, to show that she had a sense of humor, I include this image of Mrs. Sloane throwing a snowball at the camera:

What an inspiration.


One thought on “On the Sacred and the Secular

  1. Lauren,

    Amazing Post…as always – I wish I was there to hear your discussion. This was always one of my favorite letters, I could just feel the passion and love in her voice as she was typing (or speaking for someone else to type). I am so glad you are there, with the same passion “bred in the bone” as I felt. Good luck with your lecture – and keep up the outstanding work!

    Kristin Law

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