You don’t have to know the secret handshake to get an inside look into one of the most politically consequential and culturally influential societies in the history of the United States, thanks to a new exhibit on display at the University of Georgia Special Collections Libraries.
Freemasonry in Georgia: Ideals, Imagery, and Impact, presented by the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, combs through photos, clothing and regalia, books, newspapers and other artifacts to explain the influence of the organization and its members on communities throughout Georgia for the past 200 years. As part of the experience, visitors are invited to participate in an immersive gallery game for all ages that mimics the ways in which freemasonry lore has been explored in movies like National Treasure.
Alisa Luxenberg, professor emeritus of art history at the Lamar Dodd School of Art, curated the exhibit through a course she developed as part of the Special Collections Libraries Fellows program, allowing professors to create and teach classes that use archives-based research methods. Luxenberg said she found materials throughout collections in the three Special Collections units at UGA, from home movies at the Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection to Shriner’s costumes in the Georgia Music Hall of Fame Collection.
“I came across all these connections. It shows how much freemasonry permeated American culture,” she said, explaining similarities in the ideals and symbols of the society to images and values expressed in Georgia’s state seal, the pillars of the University of Georgia Arch and other state iconography.
Through the exhibition, visitors can learn about freemasonry and its ties to many of Georgia’s high-profile figures, from early colonists who established the city of Savannah to Chief John Ross, a leader of the Cherokee Nation in the 1800s, and U.S. Sen. Richard B Russell Jr., who was one of the country’s longest serving politicians, representing the state from 1932 to 1971. Artifacts also show the impact of members of the organization on communities throughout Georgia, including the building of the iconic Fox Theatre in Atlanta and setting cornerstones at Athens City Hall and buildings on the University of Georgia campus.
Luxenberg, who earned a Mellon Foundation grant through UGA’s Willson Center for Humanities and Arts for her research, also recently co-edited a book on the symbols of freemasonry and wrote a catalogue with essays about the exhibition, available through the Hargrett Library. She will present a general lecture about the exhibit at 4 p.m. Monday, Feb. 20 at the Special Collections Building.
The next day, the Hargrett Library will present the first of a series of game nights, allowing participants to discover clues in the exhibit and figure out a mystery together. The experience is facilitated by Escape the Space staff and will be held Feb. 21, March 28, April 13 and May 4. Space is limited, so participants are asked to register by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
But visitors don’t have to wait for a special date to visit the gallery. Escape the Space staffers have also created a game that visitors can join any time —either by themselves or with friends — that takes about 15 minutes to complete. The game is available during normal hours at the Special Collections Building, which is open to visitors for free from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, with extended evening hours until 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Freemasonry in Georgia: Ideals, Imagery, and Impact will remain open to the public through July of 2023. For more information or to schedule a tour, visit libs.uga.edu/scl.