[The following is a guest post by Dr. Amy Hale. Dr. Hale is an anthropologist specializing in contemporary Celtic cultures, with an emphasis on modern Cornwall and contemporary Esoteric culture and history.]
On Saturday May 14, the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, celebrated 60 years of existence with a day of lectures, culminating with the launch of the new book The Museum of Witchcraft: A Magical History. The day of talks, titled “Guardians of Magic” featured lectures about three key, yet sometimes poorly recognized, figures in 20th century witchcraft and magical culture. The day kicked off with Kerriann Godwin and Joyce Froome presenting “Cecil Williamson-Life of an Occultist” an engaging profile of the man who founded the Museum of Witchcraft in 1951 on the Isle of Man. This was followed by Jason Semmens’ presentation on the life of William Paynter, a Cornish folklorist of the mid 20th century who collected tales and artifacts related to witchcraft and cunning folk. I finished the day with an illustrated lecture on the life of Surrealist and esoteric artist Ithell Colquhoun, whose life in Cornwall formed the background for much of her art and magical practice. The day closed with a launch of the volume, The Museum of Witchcraft: A Magical History which contains essays, poems and reflections of many prominent vistors throughout the years. For anyone wanting to purchase this fine, illustrated book, details can be found on the website of the Occult Art Company.
In so many ways, the Museum of Witchcraft’s success is a remarkable achievement, and testimony to the not only the enduring interest in the history of Witchcraft, but also to the robustness of contemporary witchcraft and Paganism. This history of the museum itself is quite amazing. In 1951 Naval officer and occult enthusiast Cecil Willamson opened his first Museum of Magic and Witchcraft on the Isle of Man, stocking it with exhibits relating to historical witchcraft (some of which were probably considered rather daring and outrageous for the time) and also displaying artifacts reportedly in use by British cunning folk. The dynamic and outspoken Williamson befriended Gerald Gardner to assist him, having him on site as the museum’s resident witch, but unsurprisingly, the relationship became acrimonious, and in 1952 Williamson sold his museum building to Gardner, and moved on, finally settling in Cornwall in 1960. What struck me during the day’s festivities is that while of course Gerald Gardner has his historical position within modern witchcraft secured, Williamson is much less well known, despite being a contemporary of Gardner. Williamson did not found a religion, but he worked in that interesting historical space in the 20th century documenting and displaying traditional folk practices while the revival and reframing of witchcraft into a new religious context was occurring. That project deserves a fair bit of recognition.
Additionally, for a small, independent museum to have flourished in such a remote location in Cornwall for 50 years, is really quite an accomplishment. Cornwall has a reputation for being rather otherworldly, so is well suited for such an institution. It has an interesting history of not only local healers and cunning folk, but the region has attracted Pagans and other more magical practitioners since the early 20th century. When Graham King took over the museum in 1996, he genuinely built on Williamson’s legacy, and, uncompromisingly, in my view, created an educational center devoted to honoring and explaining the traditions and practices of a range of modern Pagan practitioners. Graham and his team have preserved a magnificent resource for the entire Pagan community. If you have not paid it a visit, put it on your bucket list.