Archive for the Museum Category

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Posted in Caves, Edinburgh, History, Legend, Museum, Sculpture, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

If there is one thing I love more than a spooky mystery, it is an unsolved spooky mystery. I recently discovered one such mystery on a brief visit to Edinburgh, where I wandered into the wonderful National Museum of Scotland. There I found the intriguing Arthur’s Seat coffins, a spooky mystery if ever there was one.

The Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Discovered in 1836 by some boys in a cave on the side of Arthur’s Seat, the impressive craggy hill that dominates the city, these tiny handmade coffins were arranged carefully in three tiers. Each one is intricately carved, and wears custom made clothes with little painted boots. To this day nobody knows who made them, or when, or even why, but there are a few interesting theories.

A detail of the Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

A detail of the Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Some people have suggested that the coffins were used by witches to cast spells on their victims, rather like a Scottish form of voodoo. Another theory is that they were kept by sailors as good luck talismans. There is even conjecture that these strange little dollies represent the seventeen victims of notorious Edinburgh grave robbers Burke and Hare, and that local inhabitants made them in order to allow the stolen and dissected bodies a decent burial.

Interesting ideas indeed, but of course the real purpose of these rather cute (but also rather creepy) coffins will probably always remain a perplexing, but definitely very magical, mystery.

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British Folk Art, Tate Britain

Posted in Art, History, London, Museum, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2014 by mysearchformagic

It’s hard to know how to define the term ‘Folk Art’, the subject of a current exhibition at London’s Tate Britain. It is often created by self-trained artists, although I should think many of its makers would not think of themselves as artists. Some of it could be described as ‘craft’ as opposed to ‘high art’, but many of the objects in the exhibition were created using incredible skill and effort. A number of the pieces on show were linked with local traditions and customs. Some of them are downright bizarre. But, as you have probably guessed, a fair few of them were also pretty magical.

A wall of shop signs in British Folk Art at Tate Britain

A wall of shop signs in British Folk Art at Tate Britain

The show gets off to a great start with an impressive yellow wall lined with a selection of shop signs of all shapes, sizes and dates. One takes the form of a giant shoe, fashioned and stitched perfectly from leather just like its normal-sized counterparts. A wonderfully enigmatic sun hangs at the top of the display, looking down on the gallery visitors with a hint of a smile.

A cockerel fashioned from mutton bones in British Folk Art, Tate Britain

A cockerel fashioned from mutton bones in British Folk Art, Tate Britain

Another highlight of British Folk Art is a beautiful life-size cockerel created out of mutton bones by French prisoners of war during the Napoleonic era. Each of its feathers is intricately and individually carved, transforming the most basic material into something lively and enchanting.

A straw effigy of King Alfred in British Folk Art, Tate Britain

A straw effigy of King Alfred in British Folk Art, Tate Britain

Definitely the most extraordinary object in the exhibition is this life-size straw effigy of King Alfred. Reminiscent of the terrifying final scene in cult classic The Wicker Man, it’s hard to get a sense of just how imposing and spooky this figure is without encountering it in person. All the more reason to check out British Folk Art at Tate Britain, and experience a branch of the arts that, despite generally being overlooked, often retains an ancient, even mystical sense of wonder.

An iron shop sign in the shape of a sun from British Folk Art, Tate Britain

An iron shop sign in the shape of a sun from British Folk Art, Tate Britain

Details on visiting British Folk Art can be found here.
All images copyright the Tate.

Tintern Abbey Seen by Moonlight, Peter van Lerberghe

Posted in Art, Church, History, Museum, Ruins with tags , , , , , , , on May 5, 2014 by mysearchformagic

Today I’ve been to the Ruin Lust exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery. It was a bit of an odd hotch-potch to be honest, and despite its theme, was sadly lacking in magic.
I was however rather taken with this early 19th Century watercolour by Peter van Lerberghe from the Tate’s own collection. Created at a time when exploring romantic ruins was all the rage, the painting captures a group of brave tourists discovering the Gothic delights of Tintern Abbey by torchlight.

Tintern Abbey seen by Moonlight, 1802 by Peter van Lerberghe

Tintern Abbey seen by Moonlight, 1802 by Peter van Lerberghe

It all looks like great fun. I’d love to do it myself, although I might not be bold enough to teeter along the top of the ruins like some of these visitors. And to be honest, I don’t think Cadw, who now take care of the picturesque ruins of Tintern Abbey, would be very keen!

The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Posted in History, Museum, Oxford, Superstition with tags , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2014 by mysearchformagic

I spent a few days in Oxford last week, a beautiful town that is most definitely packed with magic. One of the most intriguing places that I visited was the Pitt Rivers Museum, situated in a suitably gothic building and home to Oxford University’s vast anthropological and archaeological collections.

The wondefully gothic exterior of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford

The wondefully gothic exterior of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Originally founded in 1884 by the magnificently named Lt-General Augustus Pitt Rivers, the original donation of 22,000 objects has now grown to an amazing 500,000, with many of them packed into the maze of glass cases that fills the museum today.

The packed interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

The packed interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

The museum collection includes weird and wonderful items from all over the world, many of them collected and donated by explorers, missionaries and scholars during the last century. I wandered round on my own, but quickly noticed lots of eyes staring at me from spooky tribal masks, ancient sculptures and cases full of colourful puppets. This Indian ‘Scare Devil’, which was believed to keep malevolent spirits at bay, sent a shiver down my spine.

A googly-eyed 'Scare Devil' from India

A googly-eyed ‘Scare Devil’ from India

There also seem to be an inordinate number of human skulls, many of them adorned in strange, magical ways. I was particularly drawn to one skull from Nigeria which had been elaborately decorated with feathers as part of local burial rites.

An elaborately decorated human skull from Nigeria in the Pitt Rivers Museum

An elaborately decorated human skull from Nigeria in the Pitt Rivers Museum

But my favourite objects were definitely the shrunken heads. Originally from the Upper Amazon region of South American, these creepy little heads had their skull and brains removed before being filled over and over again with warm sand for a period of several months, gradually shrinking them down until could be strung onto a cord which was worn round the neck during religious ceremonies.

One of the many shrunken heads in the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

One of the many shrunken heads in the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

There are so many incredible things in the Pitt Rivers Museum, it is the kind of place that you could spend hours wandering around. Every glass case is packed with treasures, some quite mundane, some incredible bizarre, some fairly new, others very, very ancient. Magic-seekers of all ages will love this place, although with all those skulls, shrunken heads, tribal masks and puppets, a visit here can certainly be a rather unsettling experience.

The Collection of the Magical Dr. Dee, The British Museum

Posted in History, London, Museum, Superstition, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2014 by mysearchformagic

I’ve been back to the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum again this week, but not to see the creepy little merman. This time I was more interested in the items from the collection of Elizabethan astrologer and magician Dr John Dee.

The Museum has a number of objects which once belonged to the fascinating Dr. Dee in its collection. There are two wax discs which supported his ‘table of practise’, and another larger disc which held his mystical ‘shew stone’, a highly polished obsidian ‘scrying’ mirror used for divination. A small inscribed gold disc shows images of one of Dee’s magical visions, and the crystal ball was used by his assistant Edwards Kelly to conjure up his own mysterious images.

Magical Objects from Dr. John Dee's Collection

Magical Objects from Dr. John Dee’s Collection

A close advisor of Elizabeth I, Dee spent much of his later life dabbling in the occult, and travelled around Europe indulging in all sorts of bizarre experiments. However, he fell out of favour after Elizabeth’s death, and ended his days in penniless obscurity in Mortlake, now in the suburbs of London.

A portrait of John Dee, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

A 16th Century portrait of John Dee, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

It seems that Dr Dee was particularly keen to make contact with angels, which he attempted to do using his crystal ball and obsidian mirror. Was he successful? I guess we can only wonder. But staring into the inky black depths of that scrying mirror, maybe my eyes were playing tricks, but I thought perhaps I saw something…

The Severed Hand of Sir John Heydon, Norwich Castle

Posted in Castle, Legend, Museum, Norfolk with tags , , , , , , on November 18, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Norwich Castle is a huge bulk of a place, its impressive Norman keep surrounded by later buildings which in the 18th and 19th Centuries were used as a gaol. in 1887 the Castle was bought by the City of Norwich, and after eight years of heavy restoration it reopened as the local museum.

The impressive exterior of Norwich Castle

The impressive exterior of Norwich Castle

The rambling interior of the castle is filled with wonders, everything from Roman coins to rooms full of stuffed animals of every sort. As a fan of Cabinets of Curiosity, I was excited to find the small room which contained the Fitch Collection. With its numerous glass cabinets filled with weird and wonderful objects, the Fitch Collection reminded me of a miniature version of the British Museum’s Englightenment Gallery. It was here that I discovered the magically macabre severed hand of Sir John Heydon.

The severed hand of Sir John Heydon

The severed hand of Sir John Heydon

The now-mummified hand was reputedly cut from the rest of Sir John during a duel in January 1600. How the wizened little thing ended up in this collection is a mystery. With is delicate fingers, tiny white fingernails and surprisingly clean cut, the hand is marvelously gruesome, and perhaps not for the squeamish or faint hearted. But who said magic couldn’t be grim and goulish?

Find out more about the hand of Sir John Heydon here.

Tomorrow, Elmgreen & Dragset

Posted in Art, House, London, Museum with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2013 by mysearchformagic

There’s been outrage in Kensington over the last couple of weeks. Passers-by can’t help but notice the enormous billboard outside the world-renowned Victoria and Albert Museum announcing that a luxury flat is for sale within the museum itself. Shocked locals are calling up to express their disgust at the idea that part of this historic institution is being sold off. A few people have been in touch expressing an interest in buying it. All of them have been informed that the billboard is an elaborate wheeze created by artistic duo Elmgreen & Dragset as part of their latest installation, entitled Tomorrow.

Controversial hoardings outside the V&A, London

Controversial hoardings outside the V&A, London

I was lucky enough to attend an evening private view of Tomorrow this week. Typically of Elmgreen & Dragset, the installation involves a complex back story – in fact they describe the work as the set from an unrealised film.

The opulent drawing room of Tomorrow All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

The opulent drawing room of Tomorrow
All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

Grand galleries which once housed the V&A’s tapestry collection have been magically transformed into a vast apartment, the home of ageing architectural academic Norman Swann. Born to a wealthy family, Swann has never quite lived up to his potential; none of his designs have ever been built, and now he is old and washed up, out of money and being forced to put the apartment on the market. Visitors to Tomorrow are invited to stroll around the huge, rather soulless chandelier-lit space, taking in the massed ephemera of Swann’s long life.

A strange figure cowers in the fireplace in Tomorrow All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

A strange figure cowers in the fireplace in Tomorrow
All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

But things are never quite what they seem in Elmgreen & Dragset’s world. Take a look beyond the expensive antique furniture and opulent oil paintings and you will notice lots of strange details dotted around the installation. A crack snakes it way across the huge dining table, cutting through the plates on top and the chairs which sit around it. A lifelike mannequin of a schoolboy cowers in a fireplace below a painted portrait of himself. A spooky dummy in a French maid’s outfit stands frozen in the hallway. A gilded vulture leers expectantly over Swann’s luxurious bed.

The luxurious bedroom of Tomorrow All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

The luxurious bedroom of Tomorrow
All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

Elmgreen & Dragset provide visitors to the show with a booklet which they have written themselves, a script to the so-called ‘unrealised film’ for which this apartment is the set. I prefer to dream up my own narrative to fit the scene. As you wander around Tomorrow it is impossible not to let your imagination ramble through all sorts of bizarre, magical connotations. What the script that you concoct will look like, well who is to know? The possibilities are tantalisingly endless.

The cracked dining table, Tomorrow All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

The cracked dining table, Tomorrow
All images courtesy of the artists and Victoria Miro, London

Elmgreen & Dragset’s Tomorrow will be open until 2nd January 2014 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington.
http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/tomorrow-elmgreen-dragset/