Exhibition on magic at the Ashmolean Museum

Liz Williams —  August 23, 2018 — Leave a comment

OXFORD, England — The Ashmolean Museum will soon be hosting an exhibition on magical practice. ‘Spellbound: Magic, Witchcraft and Ritual’ will be running from Aug. 31 through – Jan. 6, 2019. The exhibition, covers the past 800 years, is described on the museum’s website ‘as immersive and thought-provoking.’ It will feature objects such as a ‘unicorn’s’ horn, rings to bind a lover, grimoires, and a human heart cased in lead.

“The intriguing objects on display show how our ancestors used magical thinking to cope with the unpredictable world around them . . . . The exhibition asks us to examine our own beliefs and rituals, and aims to show how, even in this sceptical age, we still use magical thinking and why we might need a bit of magic in our lives. To illuminate the links between past and present, specially commissioned works by contemporary artists provide dramatic responses to the themes of the show, conjuring demons, flames and the scuttling of malignant spirits.”

Author and president of the Blake Society, Phillip Pullman, who is also one of the exhibition’s sponsors, says that ‘Spellbound promises to be one of the Ashmolean’s most intriguing and unusual exhibitions.’

The research on this subject, under the title “Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity and the Supernatural, 1300 -1900” was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and conducted by scholars at the University of East Anglia, University College London and the University of Hertfordshire. This project focuses on historical interactions with the supernatural, in order to try to understand the emotional experiences and interior world of ordinary people between 1300 and 1900. The project itself is divided into 3 main areas:

  1. Medieval (1300 – 1500): cosmos – this area concentrates on “how people imagined invisible and sacred forces” and the ways in which they engaged with those forced, how they perceived supernatural danger, and their relationships with spirits which “produced communal responses that contributed to the origins of witch-hunting.”
  2. Early modern (1500-1700): community – “exploring how people in the early modern period thought about themselves in relation to their seen and unseen environments, in particular by examining the place of feeling and subjectivity in witchcraft beliefs, and exploring how these beliefs were manifested as witch trials.”
  3. Modern (1700-1900): household – this area of research “explores the secretion of apotropaic objects (concealed shoes, written charms, witch bottles, etc), and the carving of protective symbols in and around the home and outbuildings . . . . In the late 18th and 19th centuries, some of the fears, beliefs, and convictions that led people to secrete charms and apotropaic objects also marked them out as displaying symptoms of insanity. Hundreds of people were incarcerated in asylums, in part, on the basis of their apocalyptic religious views, convictions of personal damnation, claims to have received celestial communications, delusions of satanic or spiritual persecution, and their ‘monomaniacal’ fear of witches. We are searching through asylum casebooks to build up a picture of the sorts of supernatural concerns that were expressed by asylum inmates.”

As well as the exhibition at the Ashmolean, a forthcoming conference, Inner Lives: Living in a Magical World (1300-1900) is also linked to the research project outlined above. The conference has now sold out: it is to be held at St Anne’s College on the 17th -19th Sept 17-19. Per the website:

“Historians have learned to regard the supernatural as integral to past lives. No longer are magical and occult beliefs anachronistically condescended to as ‘superstitions’, entertained only by a credulous minority and ancillary to everyday existence. Instead, the near-constant presence of unseen yet powerful forces – benevolent and malign, across domestic, communal, and cosmic environments – now seems central to a subtle and pervasive worldview held by sane, intelligent people whose outlook on the universe was no less sophisticated than our own. At the same time, supernatural beliefs were unstable, inconsistent, and contested.”

It’s appropriate that the Ashmolean is hosting this exhibition and is linked to the Leverhulme project. Built in 1678-83, the museum’s original purpose was to house the cabinet of curiosities that Elias Ashmole had gathered over the course of his career. An antiquarian and politician (he was a royalist during the English Civil War), Ashmole was an alchemist and astrologer, but he was also a member of the Royal Society, dedicated to the furtherance of science – for this was an age in which rationalism and mysticism were often espoused by the same person. Ashmole published an English translation of two Latin alchemical works, one of which had been written by magician John Dee’s son Arthur. He went on to publish a number of books on alchemy, although there is no evidence that he took more than a theoretical interest in the subject. He was also a close friend of renowned astrologer William Lilly and practiced astrology and magic himself.

On inheriting the collection of the explorer John Tradescant, who had gathered plants, minerals and curiosities from around the world, Ashmole made a gift of the collection to the University of Oxford, who had given him a doctorate in medicine. He stipulated that the gift was made on condition that the university should build a suitable place to house it, and so the Ashmolean Museum was born: it continues to be one of Oxford’s most important buildings and one of the premier museums in Britain today. It is appropriate, therefore, that this important research project enjoys such links with an institution which is itself integrally linked to the history of magic.

The museum will be running timed tickets, which need to be booked in advance. Full price adult tickets will be £12.95. However, entry is free, and no booking is required, for: children under 12 years; University of Oxford students; and members of the Ashmolean. Tickets are discounted at 50% for: those under 25; students; children aged 12–17 years; and art fund members. Concession tickets are available for: senior citizens: those who are unemployed, and University of Oxford staff and alumni. There are a number of late exhibition openings once a month.

Liz Williams

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Liz Williams is a professional writer and, with her partner, runs a witchcraft supply business and bookshop in Glastonbury, England. She has written for the Guardian and other publications on pagan themes, and is a member of various pagan organisations, including the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.