Capturing the magic of folklore collections - Museums Association

Capturing the magic of folklore collections

Audiences are enchanted by the romance of folkloric objects, so why are they still the poor cousin in museum collections?
Objects from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle © Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

From Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, Merlin to Gandalf, the Wicker Man to morris dancing, magic and folklore have captured the public imagination for many years. So why do we not see more folkloric objects in museums, particularly as the few exhibitions that have been held on the subject have drawn so much interest.

“We were totally unprepared for the amount of interest in the Ritual Britain exhibition we ran at The Crypt Gallery in King’s Cross, London, in 2021,” says Simon Costin, who is the director of both the Museum of British Folklore and the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, an independent museum in Boscastle, Cornwall.

“On the last weekend we had to get crowd-control involved to deal with the huge numbers of visitors,” says Costin. “Of course, we were overjoyed with this, but we have actually been putting on exhibitions through the Museum of British Folklore since 2010.” 

A corn dolly-inspired installation on display as part of Ritual Britain, a show put on by the Museum of British Folklore in 2021

The museum does not yet have a permanent home, but is hoping to take a temporary lease on a building soon, and in the mean time will launch a large-scale folk costume exhibition at Compton Verney art gallery in Warwickshire in spring 2023.

“The Museum of British Folklore project was initially driven by frustration. I simply couldn’t understand why there wasn’t already a museum that looked at the UK’s rich folkloric living history,” he says. “The subject has been overlooked and undervalued for so long now that the major funding bodies tend to not see the importance of folk culture.”

Let the magic begin

Temporary exhibitions such as the British Museum’s current show, The World of Stonehenge (see p38), and the Ashmolean in Oxford’s 2019 show Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft have gone some way to fill the gap, and this summer an exhibition on the theme will be unveiled at Colchester Castle in Essex.

Wicked Spirits? Witchcraft and Magic opens at the castle on 16 July and is a collaboration with Costin’s Museum of Witchcraft and Museum of British Folklore. It aims to tell the stories of those accused of witchcraft in the district overseen by infamous witchfinder general, Matthew Hopkins.

One of the star items will be a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches), one of the first printed publications giving advice on how to hunt and eradicate those suspected of witchcraft. There will also be one of the only five remaining ducking stools in the UK, which is part of Ipswich Museum’s collection.

“For years, the lives of those who were executed for witchcraft have been secondary to the stories of those who hunted them, such as Hopkins,” says Ben Paites, the collections and learning curator – community at Colchester and Ipswich Museums.

A copy of the Discovery of Witches written by witchfinder Matthew Hopkins in 1647 went on show at the Ashmolean in 2018 © Queens College, University of Oxford

“Now, we want to flip the narrative and share the truth of those who suffered and died as a result of mass fear and disinformation. Wicked Spirits will explore the history of the persecution of people suspected of witchcraft, tell real stories of those who lost their lives and ask visitors to reflect on their own beliefs and superstitions.” 


These exhibitions tell us that magic, ritual and folklore was part of everyday life for centuries, which supports the argument that more museum space should be dedicated to the topic. Indeed, some in the sector are already working on this. In 2020, Peter Hewitt co-founded the Folklore Museums Network, a Subject Specialist Network that has a mission to“help its members identify, understand and fully utilise the folklore collections held in museums across Britain and Ireland”.

An intricate corn dolly that was displayed at the Museum of British Folklores exhibition The Maiden, the Neck and the Mare: Harvest Traditions and Beliefs at the Weald and Downloand Museum from October 2019 to January 2020

“It feels like interest in folklore, tradition and intangible cultural heritage has never been so pervasive,” says Hewitt, who recently took up the post of intangible cultural heritage officer for Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS).

“I had not long finished some work with the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic and a folklore project at Museums Northumberland and learnt a lot from my experiences. So, the time seemed right to start the Folklore Museums Network to connect like-minded people and museums.”

The inaugural Folklore and Intangible Cultural Heritage conference in December 2021 was created with MGS and Historic Environment Scotland. The network is now connecting professionals to help bring greater understanding to the folkloric objects in museums.

“We are keen to offer free training and case-study type sessions and are working on a database of folkloric material in UK museums based upon the cumulative knowledge and research of members,” says Hewitt.

A passion for collecting

Folkloric items and curios are often what founded museums in the first place. Horticulturalist father and son the Tradescants (whose collection went on to found the Ashmolean in 1682) brought back objects from their travels that included a stuffed dodo, Guy Fawkes’s lantern and Jacob’s coat of many colours.

“It’s true that specific types of ‘curios’, which can now be considered ‘classic’ folklore artefacts, such as mole’s feet, toadstones, corn dollies, and so on, were collected by museums so they could demonstrate the archaic nature of sections of society in the 19th century,” says Hewitt.

A poppet traditionally used as a curse, from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle © Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

“Collectors were partially driven by a sense of loss that this stuff would eventually go by the wayside as Britain modernised and educated its working classes or rural poor. But these curios were later reinterpreted to relate to broader cultural issues and reveal a wider picture of society.”

Ronald Hutton, a professor of history at the University of Bristol and a specialist in the history of British folklore, thinks the reason that these objects are undervalued is simply down to their appearance.

“Objects connected with folklore are often small and not terribly glamorous,” he says. “They’re often enigmatic because they’re collected by people who were unable or unwilling to ask the people who’d used them what they believed about them and how they used them. So, it’s often left to us to work out what they meant. All that adds up to a certain depreciation.”

Another issue is the belief that museums are educational and shouldn’t perpetuate superstitious, unhistoric or erroneous beliefs.

“But why did people believe that toads coughed up magical stones?” asks Hewitt. “Why did they believe in witches and deploy numerous objects against them? When you dig into these questions these objects reveal an amazingly interesting view of the past.”

Scientific truth is important for many museums, but isn’t the representation of community beliefs and customs also central to our understanding of the past? Whether it’s scratching marks on doors to ward spirits away, building a great monument that aligns with sun-rise on the summer solstice, or using leeches to draw “black bile”, all of these customs and experiments were ways we tried to understand our world in the past.

When the Horniman Museum in London reopened its World Galleries in 2016, it included a section on charms. Tom Crowley, a former Horniman curator and now a heritage consultant, helped devise the display.

A display at the Horniman Museum recreates one of Britain’s ancient healing rituals whereby scraps of fabric were tied to trees near sacred wells or springs

“We started looking at charms in 2013 as part of the Health and Healing theme of our Collections People Stories project,” he says. “An early workshop that brought together scholars and practitioners informed our approach and served as inspiration for the England – Luck and Protection section of the World Gallery. The idea was to make no distinction between collections that might traditionally be considered folkloric and [those] that might be considered ethnographic.

“We wanted the England section to be treated no differently to anywhere else in the world. We also wanted visitors to make links between charm-use in England and charm-use elsewhere. Finally, we were keen that the England display would strike most visitors as just as ‘weird’ as anything they might encounter elsewhere in the gallery. I hear that the dried mole’s feet charms did this job especially well.”

Mark Norman is a folklore researcher and author who set up the Folklore Podcast in 2016. “The Folklore Podcast grew from what was initially a hobby to something rather more,” he says. “It has been running for seven seasons, has had nearly 1.5 million downloads and is rated in the top 0.5% of the nearly 2.5 million podcasts in existence. It is this popularity that has allowed us to set up the Folklore Library and Archive, which aims to preserve an ever-growing repository of research material in the field of folklore for future generations of researchers, all purely independent and volunteer-run.”

Norman is keen to collaborate with museums and is in the process of setting up projects to record traditional community events and customs as well as collect any collateral photos or objects.

Living on in the urban legend

This interest in collecting live folkloric traditions is something that Francis Young, a historian of religion and belief and the author of Magic in Merlin’s Realm: A History of Occult Politics in Britain, shares.

“Folklore is not something dead; people and communities have their own folklore, even if they use other terms such as ‘urban legends’. Folklore is also diverse; it represents the collective memory of marginalised groups, such as the Roma, and is an important feature of immigrant communities.” 

Young’s view of folklore should be easily understood by museums who run contemporary collecting campaigns. Folklore can be perceived as “oldy-worldy”, but it simply conveys community traditions and beliefs.

“Museums often have folklore-related items in their collections, but deciding how to display and communicate the meaning of these can be a challenge,” says Norman. “Objects found hidden in old houses such as shoes and desiccated cats and mice are often linked with ‘witchcraft’ and ‘superstition’ in local museum displays, when it is far from clear that they were [even] deliberately or ‘ritually’ concealed.” 

This shows the importance of encouraging museums to understand more about these items. “If museums can begin by establishing relationships with living communities then that is the key to understanding more about folk culture,” says Hewitt.

The exterior of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle

“The Folklore Museums Network is interested in promoting contemporary collecting for lots of reasons. It’s about mapping the folklore of the present, but it will also ensure that museums stay relevant. Who is the expert on folk culture? The answer is usually the communities themselves, and as centres of community, museums should care about that dynamic.”

The message is that even if a museum doesn’t hold historic folk items, it should still make space to interpret contemporary customs and folk traditions. But what of the history of folklore?

“We need a Museum of British Folklore,” says Hutton. “It’s the back door on so many aspects of history and the present. There is huge public interest in material routes to magic, a deep popular wish to reconnect with the land and the past, the two entities from which ultra-modern living cuts us off from most effectively. And there is a tremendous scholarly realisation in the sheer quantity and quality of evidence we’re getting and its significance as an omnipresent part of past, present and future culture. Now, you put that lot together and you’ve got quite a whammy.”

The lure of lore

Folklore experts tell us about recent happenings that have captivated them

Peter Hewitt

“During the height of Covid, at my local holy well, St Queran’s Well in Dumfries, people were leaving facemasks as ‘cloots’ or ‘clooties’ during lockdown. The idea is that an item that relates to an illness is left near a reputed healing well in the hope that the infirmity will be ‘left’ there. In other contexts, the belief might be that as the clootie disintegrates so too will the infirmity, but this is difficult when they are made from plastic.”

Ronald Hutton

 “We’re used to finding old shoes bricked up in houses as protective objects. I was recently sent some wooden carvings of shoes, which was really exciting because they’re quite ornate and elaborate. They are also much harder to make than just putting an old or worn-out shoe up the chimney or in the rafters. Somebody went to a lot of trouble for objects that had no utility. We have to ask why, but clearly there was a lot of emotional and/or spiritual significance invested in these things.”

Simon Costin

“An object that always inspires me would have to be a hessian mitten, worn to protect the hands and collected on the street after the Barrel Burning in Ottery St Mary in east Devon. I just have to smell it and I’m back there dodging the huge flaming barrel as it looms out of the darkness in a shower of sparks.”

Francis Young

“In the History of Science Museum in Oxford there is a small bronze magical sigil bearing the Sigillum Dei Aemeth in the form designed by John Dee (the 16th century mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occultist and alchemist in the court of Elizabeth I), which was found at an earthwork between Cambridgeshire and Suffolk called the Devil’s Dyke. The find-spot suggests this was an item of magical equipment lost or discarded by a 17th-century treasure hunter, who often targeted ancient earthworks. I like this object because I am familiar with the place where it was found, and I am intrigued by the convergence of learned and popular culture in magical treasure-hunting in early modern England. This single object evokes that entire world.”

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