In the dark heart of Boscastle sits one of my favourite museums; the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. Selling itself as ‘one of Britain’s most unique and well-loved independent museums’, it explores practices of witchcraft and magic through a broad range of objects. Holding the ‘world’s oldest and largest collections of items relating to witchcraft and the occult’, the museum is packed with bizarre and fascinating objects and stories!
One of the most interesting stories is that of the museum itself. It was established in 1960 by Cecil Williamson who specifically placed it in Boscastle, “standing on the edge of the beyond”. The museum focussed on folk magic, and grew its collection along that theme. At midnight on Hallowe’en 1996, the Museum was acquired by Graham King, under whose leadership the museum further developed with redisplays throughout the galleries. King looked at collections from a new viewpoint and oversaw the burial of Joan Wytte (1775-1813), a witch known as the ‘fighting fairy of Bodmin’ whose skeleton had been in the museum for many years.
The crammed galleries take their character from their collections, but are clearly themed. A full room set, ‘Joan’s Wytte’s cottage’, now represents stories of 18th century witchcraft. Small engaging objects are displayed at all levels, so even children can be mesmerised by items such as those found in building walls, fireplaces and doorways to ward off evil spirits.
Sadly the Museum suffered terrible damage in the 2004 flood, and a massive amount of work was undertaken to salvage objects, clean up the museum, and open new gallery spaces. The Museum is now owned by Simon Costin, who is also Director of the Museum of British Folklore, an online project.
There isn’t a great deal of space for contextual interpretation, so visitors have to understand objects and stories for their own intrinsic interest, rather than gaining an overview of the history of witchcraft through a visit. The quirky ‘cabinet of curios’ presentation seems to engage and fascinate people. Some of the content in this subject area is difficult, and could make visitors uneasy, and visitors have to be prepared for stories of violent punishment of witches, and the display of items like phallic objects.
Within the theme of witchcraft and magic, the museum’s collections are wide-ranging, and draw on British and international traditions. It looks at the intersection between folk practice and formal religion, and features traditional remedies as well as darker magical practice. It’s clear that collecting is ongoing, with modern items such as witch dolls being added.
Back at work, I sip my tea from the ‘cup of forbidden knowledge’ – a souvenir mug featuring one of the museum’s early advertising posters!Visitor Information
About the authorLiz Stewart is Curator of Archaeology and the Historic Environment at the Museum of Liverpool. Liz has been involved with numerous exhibitions and a wide range of engagement and community archaeology through her role at Museum of Liverpool. Liz is interest in medieval and later archaeology, with a specialism in buildings archaeology. Liz project managed the ‘Galkoff’s and Secret Life of Pembroke Place’ project from 2016-2019.