Thursday 2 June 2016

Q&A Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

We are really lucky to welcome Judith Hewitt, Co-manager at Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, here to answer questions posed by PWC members. You can find out more about the museum via their website and blog. They are also on Twitter and Facebook, and have a Friends Of site.

Hello Judith. Thank you so much for taking time out from running the museum to come and talk to us about its artefacts. 

Perhaps we could kick off with a little history? How did the museum begin?

The Museum was founded in 1951 by Cecil Williamson. He had been interested in witchcraft from childhood and collected many items during his travels. He also took in items which people didn’t want as they saw them as taboo or cursed.  Cecil was a practising witch and when he died the Museum inherited much of his personal collection.

The Museum moved around a great deal in the early days. Early locations included Bourton on the Water, Windsor and the Isle of Man. For a time, Gerald Gardner was the “resident witch” at the Museum but Gardner and Cecil differed on many issues and the two men went their separate ways. Cecil brought his collection to Boscastle and opened the Museum here in 1960. 

What is the oldest item in the collection?

The oldest object in the collection is probably Harriet the skull. This tarred human head was kept in a box. Recent research suggests it is a mummy from Ancient Egypt.

And the newest?

The newest items in the collection would be the objects we collected for the Halloween exhibition which is running for 2016. The newest of all are probably the sweets in our Halloween food section.

Is there an item you don't have at the museum that you would really like to add?

So many things but we have so little space! The collection is always growing due to donations and acquisitions. In the near future, we will try to acquire a toadstone ring. We would also like to collect more written charms. We would like to expand our ritual magic collection to include some older examples – something owned by John Dee would be amazing!

Have any strange things happened at the museum? Is it haunted?

I have worked here for over two years and I can’t say I’ve ever experienced anything but we are always hearing accounts from people who have seen or felt things in the Museum. One lady said she felt like she was being pinched, another described experiencing a strong headache, other people have said they have seen a woman wearing a long dress. In the early days, the Museum housed an entire human skeleton which was known as Joan Wytte. This has now been buried as it made many people feel uncomfortable, the owner at that time was convinced that Joan was unhappy on display in the Museum and that she was making her unhappiness felt in various ways. 

Why are people still so fascinated by witchcraft?

To many people witchcraft means mystery, it intrigues them and they don’t know why. We don’t really want to take that away and think an element of mystery and the unknown is an important part of the Museum’s identity. The appeal of Witchcraft as a religion is probably easier to explain as it is so unlike other world religions. It is rooted in the natural world and the seasons, it has a place for a female deity, it is non dogmatic and enables people to connect  with the ancient world and their ancestors. Many people like the Museum because they find it “dark” and seemingly timeless and they find the modern world too “light” and technological or transient.

Boscastle was flooded in 2004. Do you still worry about that? How do you protect the displays?

We do worry about it sometimes when the rain is really heavy or the tide is really high but Boscastle now has first rate flood defences which seem to be protecting us - touch wood! On the ground floor, none of the displays touch the ground so if there were a minor flooding, they wouldn’t be affected. We have flood boards and sand bags just in case! We also have a comprehensive insurance policy and an emergency plan with a “pick list” of objects to save if the worst came to the worst. Ultimately, we can’t eliminate the risk of flooding in our current location but we have no plans to move so we have to make the best of it! 

What have been the biggest changes to the museum over the years?

Since its move to Boscastle in 1960, the Museum has had three owners. I think the change of ownership and the different styles and approaches of the different owners has probably been the biggest change. Cecil Williamson was the first owner and his displays were based on his relationships with local witches and also his experiences in the film industry. Some of his displays were deliberately intended to shock and confirm rather than challenge visitor stereotypes of witches. When Graham King took over the Museum in 1996 he wanted to make it more of a centre for Paganism and a site of pilgrimage for practising witches so the tone of the Museum changed a great deal. Graham also introduced more museological standards such as the online catalogue. In 2013, Simon Costin took over the Directorship of the Museum and there have been many changes in the look and feel of the displays. The Museum is bigger than any one person, some people view change with trepidation but change is a sign of life and the Museum is definitely thriving! 

Do you get any strange feedback from visitors?

Yes, people are very interested in telling you anything odd that has ever happened to them. Most people react very positively to the Museum and go away impressed with the collection and happy to have visited.  One lady told me a long story once about a child who levitated and whose mother was persecuted by the police and accused of abuse because of her child’s paranormal behaviour. We also get sent things people don’t want in their house any more and receive letters from people who feel themselves to be cursed. We really are much more than just a Museum.

Are there any books you'd recommend for people interested in the history of witchcraft?

Yes, lots.  If people are interested, they are very welcome to make an appointment to visit the Museum library or search its contents online for book ideas.

I would recommend:

  • Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic
  • James Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness
  • Owen Davies, Witchcraft, Magic and Culture, 1736-1951

Are there any books you'd recommend for people interested in modern witchcraft?

If you’re interested in the history of modern witchcraft try Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon.  If you’re more interested in practice and an “inside view” then Gemma Gary’s Traditional Witchcraft or Levannah Morgan’s A Witch’s Mirror are both great. A personal favourite which gives an overview of all aspects of magic, sacred sites and folklore is Cheryl Straffon’s Between the Realms which focuses on Cornwall.

Do your curators feel a particular attachment to any of the displays? Do they have favourites?

Yes, definitely. Peter particularly likes the corn dollies which are deeply embedded in the British magical tradition as symbols of fertility, life and death, and goddess worship – latterly they have been made by witches in the 21st century. Simon likes the Richel Collection a great deal, although I don’t know if this is his favourite. The Horned God section also resonates strongly with him. My favourite object is a stone altar which was used by witches on Dartmoor. It is small and made to be portable. It is made from three different types of stone found on Dartmoor. They used to burn a fire in front of it and drink their own brewed mead on the moors at night while they communed with the spirit world. It is so simple, beautiful and timeless, to me it represents the essence of witchcraft in the West Country.

Do you get many international visitors? Are there similarities between witchcraft in the UK and in other countries?

We get a lot of international visitors and also international researchers and film crews. People are always pointing out similarities between customs and rituals in Britain and in their part of the world. Many of the objects in the collection are from far flung places and we are always delighted to know more about them. Last year, a visitor from Israel identified some Hebrew words which were written on an object. We are always learning more about the collection.

If you could meet any witch from history, who would it be and what would you ask them?

Tough question! I think it would have to be Joan of Arc. She is now a saint but she was burned as a witch. She seemed to have such power and charisma, she was so young and so different to other women at that time. I don’t know what I would ask her - I would just like to meet her and see what she was like. Maybe I would ask her if she really could perform miracles? Or how she feels about being considered a saint now?

What do you think the future of witchcraft will be? What might you be adding to the display in twenty or thirty years time?

That is an impossible question to answer, I predict that witchcraft will always be unpredictable! Whatever happens we hope to represent the changes and continuities in an engaging and accurate way. 

In terms of collecting, I predict big things for the Museum. Simon Costin, the new director, has already added some diverse yet hugely significant objects: from an original Goya etching to ritual artefacts from the Order of Artemis. We also welcome donations from practitioners as the Museum will sympathetically interpret and care for items and preserve them for future generations to understand.

How can people get involved and support the museum?

The best thing is to simply visit us as we rely on visitors to keep us open and the bills paid. You can also join our Friends organisation which is a charity and these membership fees help to pay for new cabinets, conservation of objects and so on. If you are local or have time to spare you can also offer your time – just recently we have had a group of volunteers photographing the collection, another helping us to clean the museum and collections in the off-season, another doing some cataloguing – there is always lots to do!