A few days ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall. This fascinating and utterly charming museum was established by occult researcher, collector and practitioner Cecil Hugh Williamson (1909 - 1999); it is said to house the largest collection of witchcraft- and Wicca-related artifacts in the world.
Founder Cecil Williamson was a rather interesting character, somewhat in the school of idiosyncratic folklore collector Edward Lovett (1852-1933). He became interested in witchcraft as a small boy, when, as the story goes, he became friends with a local witch after coming to her aid against a group of thugs attacking her. Soon after, at boarding school, he met a "wise woman" who taught him some "simple yet effective" magic against the school bully, who then went on to break his leg in a skiing accident. Later, as a young man he traveled to Rhodesia to work on a tobacco plantation, where he met and studied the African Witchdoctors who he found to be using startlingly similar techniques to English "wayside witches" he knew so well from childhood.
In 1930, he returned to the UK and continued his studies--and presumably, collecting--of the occult, developing relationships with such experts as E. A. Wallis Budge of the British Museum, Egyptologist and anthropologist Margaret Murray, and historian Montague Summers. Soon after, he was recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service (M I 6) to do undercover research on the occult interests of the leaders of the Nazi party, which led to the formation of his "Witchcraft Research Center." He went on to develop friendships with legendary occultist Aleister Crowley and Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca, who became "Witch in Residence" of the Museum of Witchcraft for some time until the two went their separate ways over differing visions for the museum's future (Sources 1, 2, 3, 4).
The Museum of Witchcraft was founded in 1951, the same year in which laws against the practice of witchcraft were finally repealed in Britain. It is a charmingly homespun and, at the same time, obsessively encyclopedic, intensely human and incredibly well researched museum. Located atop a ridiculously picturesque and windswept Cornish harbor, within you will find a mind boggling collection of artifacts, images, artworks and texts organized along such themes as "Depictions of Witches" (old hags, devil worshipers, mysterious beauties in paintings, advertisements and figurines); "Persecution" (a 17th century copy of King James I's Daemonologie, historical texts, torture instruments); "Divination" (black mirrors, tarot cards, crystal balls); "Amulets, Protection Magic and Charms" (bees in a bag, moles feet, protections from the evil eye); "The Devil and the Horned God" (the development of the Christian Devil from hooved and horned pagan gods); "Healing Magic" (herbs, potions, healing figures and wax poppets); "The Magic of Christianity" (exploring the irony that most of the people persecuted during the witch hunts were Christians utilizing sacred objects of Christianity in their spell such as holy wafers with special writings, votive offerings, and statues of the saints); and, the most fascinating--and somewhat chilling and surprising--"Curses or Natural Justice," with its many dolls, wax poppets and photos stuck through with pins; birds skulls in a nest; wax poppets in coffins; and a wax-entombed sparrow in a "sexy red shoe."
Museum captions throughout were fascinating, informative and accessible, and the whole was kind of a strange combination of homey and subversive. In short, this is one of my all time favorite museums, a truly idiosyncratic flowering of installation, scholarship, humanity and personal obsession. Truly an inspiration to aspiring museologists (like myself).
Thanks so much to Mark Pilkington, Mike Jay and Chiara Ambrosio for so rightfully urging me to make the pilgrimage to this wonderful place.