Monday, 15 April 2013

The Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle.

As soon as you mention a museum of witchcraft people bring their judgements as to what that would be - a quirky novelty, a serious pilgrimage, something to celebrate, something to fear. For me The Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle is always somewhere I've wanted to visit ever since a friend told me about their very west country glass knitting needles for knitting spells - I loved the idea of a museum filled with such strange objects that no where else would have, and when I visited the museum last week it didn't disappoint. The museum has had its troubles in recent years - not least the devastating flash flood that wrecked its way through Boscastle in 2004, but it has recovered and it now a very popular tourist attraction in Cornwall.

Situated in a lovely old and suitably witchy looking building near the strange twisting harbour at the bottom of the village, the first thing that struck me when entering was how friendly it was . As I paid my £5 entry fee (well worth it to support a small museum) the lady behind the counter welcomed us warmly and directed us through the door that would lead to the exhibits. Straight away we were plunged into a feast of strange objects and pictures. The room was quite dark but that added to the atmosphere and I loved how, like my favourite museum The Pitt Rivers in Oxford, there was a variety of cabinets and small labels giving the space an intimate home-curated feel, whilst still being informative. I loved how there were display cases like glass fronted holes in the wall framed like an old picture, containing all together toffee tins, soap and statues: how looking one way I could read Keats's "Meg Merrilies" and looking another see a figurine of the Russian folkloric child eater Baba Yarga. I also loved how along with objects the museum diaplayed things such as old vintage adverts depicting witches - my personal favourite was for Textron blouses (1950s?) and showed witches in blouses on their brooms, but like strange mermaids their bottom halves were made of grass and reeds! There was also a beautiful Arthur Rackham cat illustration, a bizarrely cute witch made out of a fir cone, as well as a petrified teddy bear from Mother Shipton's cave, whose mysterious water can turn things to stone! The first long room being arranged like this means that anyone who visits the museum will find something to interest them - later on the museum becomes much more thematically arranged, but this entrance acts as a delightfully eccentric taster session to welcome the visitor and tug at some string of everyone's potential interest.

As one continues through the museum there are a variety of different types of displays - from a life size model of an old village wise woman's room complete with recordings where one can peer in through a glass window, to a wall of jars of herbs in the section on healing. There are displays on the links between witchcraft and Christianity, moving displays on past persecutions of witches including a memorial list of those who have been tortured and killed through the ages, displays on curses, labyrinths and all sorts of wonderful curios. Some, like the mummified cat, I found a little hard to stomach, but some, like the aforementioned glass knitting needles and the jars for catching spirits (fill a glass jar full of interesting things for said spirit to do and seal it) were a real delight. Inevitably there were parts of the museum that weren't so interesting for me - the modern ritual stuff doesn't really interest me in the way the history and artifacts do, but all in all by the end of the museum I had discovered lots of new and fascinating things - from the expected like herbs, wands, mandrakes and poppets, to the completely unexpected like the strange vintage adverts and spirit jars; from the quirky like the fir cone witch, to the moving, like the memorial and a wonderful display on WW1 and the trench art dolls and charms soldiers made for luck.

Coming out the other side of the darkened chain of rooms I felt a bit like I'd returned from a strange visit to a different realm, but this is no bad thing - I think the best museums should transport us in this way - be their own little worlds of discovery. Suddenly I was back in the shop (where you can buy glass knitting needles!) with the friendly people who work there, but this was nice as it highlighted to me the dichotomy at the centre of the history of witchcraft - an ancient set of beliefs that has both a dark and a light side. I thoroughly recommend a visit and a potter round Boscastle in general.

More information and images of the museum's collection can be found on their website here.

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