Ahead of a series of features exploring their collection, Museum Crush talks to the Museum of British Folklore about their plans to start a physical museum and the magic and ritual of our lives
What is it about British folklore that seems to capture the imagination so? Perhaps it’s that yearning for a simpler way of life, free of Facebook, full of ritual, magic and rural rhythm? Or the sense of coming together with our communities to take part in a living cultural heritage that links us to the past?
Whatever the reason, the interest in our more curious customs – from dressing up as green men to chasing cheese down precipitous English hillsides – is on the rise. For example, Padstow May Day attracts up to 30,000 people each year and Hastings’ Jack in the Green has grown from just a few hundred bank holiday Morris Men to thousands of visitors.
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“There’s a whole tranche of social history within British folklore,” says Simon Costin, Director of the the Museum of British Folklore, “and people are very interested in social history. And the audience is very diverse – obviously you’ve got the died in the wool folkies who are interested in folklore, but it’s a far wider audience than that.”
The Museum of British folklore is an ambitious project that seeks to promote, celebrate and record the rich folk heritage of Britain to this wide audience, and Costin aims to create a permanent museum to house their growing collection of British folkloric treasures.
Costin is also the director of the popular Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, but there is presently no dedicated museum in the UK that explores our folkloric heritage and our annual seasonal customs and traditions.
The Museum’s collection is eclectic – much of it amassed over years by Costin, whose day job as an art director and set designer has seen him work with clients ranging from Alexander McQueen and Hermès to Swarovski and Maison Margiela. But away from the catwalks, the film-making and art directing it’s folklore that drives him, and the collection ranges from curious jig dolls and costumes to fascinating artworks and photographic archives.
Elements of it have already made appearances in a wide range of prestigious exhibitions including the Whitechapel’s lauded exploration of the artist Barbara Jones and Compton Verney’s singular celebration of British fireworks. But the main goal now is a permanent museum – an idea which crystallised in 2009 after it had “floated around” in his head for years.
“I was talking with a friend of mine, Hilary Williams, who was the director of Ditchling Museum in Sussex, and she said: “Why don’t you do something about it then?” he says.
“She suggested buying a caravan, making it into a mobile museum and taking it out on the road.
“So I said “Yes, I could probably do that,” and in 2009 I bought this little 1976 Castleton Tourer on eBay for £279. I gutted the interior and made display cabinets, then we painted the exterior in fairground designs. We set off for six months around the UK.”
Touring his museum-in-a-caravan from Cornwall to the Outer Hebrides, Costin followed the folk festival circuit and spoke to everyone from ale quaffing Morris men to Hebridean Celts. Sometimes he parked the mobile museum in a car park on the way to his next destination and talked to people beyond the folk community – just to measure the reaction.
“The tour really brought home the things that I’d been thinking about,” he says, “the reaction from people when they actually came to see us was always the same; it was “why don’t we have a museum for this in the UK?” Wherever we went, wherever it was, it was always the same reaction.”
After six months of mobile caravan curating, he came home to London and launched the website, www.museumofbritishfloklore.com and hooked up with Mellany Robinson, an expert in objects, imagery and photography with a background in publishing and museums.
“That subversive element – DIY and people doing their own thing – really chimes with what is going on in folklore.”
Robinson had read a feature on him and his house in World of Interiors and, she says, “it was supposed to be about his home yet Simon spent most of the interview talking about the Museum of British Folklore. Shameless! But I just thought it was a totally bonkers idea – it really appealed to me.”
Robinson’s CV includes a time spent with the Photographic Youth Music Culture Archive, which collects and disseminates images of subcultures from the UK and beyond and she says that kind of subversive element – DIY and people doing their own thing “really chimes with what is going on in folklore.”
Although her personal interest in folkloric customs began with a family copy of a Reader’s Digest book.
“Both Simon and I had a copy of the Reader’s Digest, Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain in our homes when we were growing up,” she explains, “and I think we have to blame everything on that.”
The tome, penned by Russell Ash, Katherine Briggs et al “is riddled with inaccuracies,” adds Costin, “but it was pivotal because it outlines the local myths or folklore derived from a particular area – a haunted pub or the Rollright Stones or whatever it was – and it was absolutely fascinating, it was real, tangible magic.
“Beautifully illustrated by a number of different illustrators, it’s a book that I always pinpoint as engendering my interest in folklore.”
“I’d always collected things and more often than not they were connected with folklore or strange and weird and wonderful things”
Costin’s interest soon developed into a serious passion for collecting things – many of them folklore-related.
“Both my parents were antique dealers,” he says, “so I grew up with lots of ‘stuff’ and I inherited that collecting bug. I’d always collected things and more often than not they were connected with folklore or strange and weird and wonderful things, and I suppose that’s where it developed. It was just that passion for collecting.”
Costin’s assemblage of folkloric treasures includes “quite a large collection” of jig dolls, the small articulated dancing figures that were also sometimes used as a kind of percussive instrument by street entertainers. “I’ve always collected them,” he admits, “they don’t come up very often”. There’s also a certain number of costumes, mostly of which have been donated – like the Haxey Hood fool’s costume, some old Morris and Jack in the Green costumes (Costin is a veteran participant of the Jack in the Green celebrations that sweep through the streets of Hastings every May), as well as contemporary outfits reflecting the thriving, evolving nature of folkloric practice across the UK.
Other collections have since come into the museum; Maurice Evans donated his entire collection of fireworks from the 1920s onwards. This numbers just over 2,000 items, including advertising posters, shop window displays and the actual fireworks themselves.
“He did say that he had actually removed most of the gunpowder from them, where possible,” says Robinson, “however we did have to get some extra insurance when we had the exhibition at Compton Verney. I think given the fact that most of them date from around the ‘20s going up to the ‘70s – they were pretty inert. But it added a frisson of danger.”
Slightly less combustible is the Trevor Stone archive, a fascinating collection of photographs recording the different folk traditions across the land – particularly sword dancing, which Stone was a passionate follower of.
There are also collections of corn dollies, horse brasses, Hoodening horse heads, Punch & Judy puppets and a selection of newly-commissioned Morris Dolls that reflect the different histories and traditions of Morris dancing sides across the UK.
“We’re dealing with something that is intangible heritage, but what we found is that we also have to almost generate content and the Morris dolls are a very good example of that,” adds Costin, who has been sending out blank figures to the teams to capture the individual way in which they dress, and they’re fantastic – every time they come back it’s a surprise when you open the box.”
The cross-pollination between folkloric and social histories, and art and design is an important one and the museum has collaborated with a range of people – like the mid-century influenced graphic designer Johnny Hannah and hip event organisers and designers Beach London, who coordinated a graphic design exhibition at Somerset House themed around British folklore.
“it’s kind of shape-shifting and constantly evolving. That’s how we operate.”
“We had all these contemporary youngsters producing the most amazing work. The way they interpreted it was really interesting and certainly we saw a different kind of crowd for that exhibition,” says Costin, “so there’s lots of new stuff that’s been generated out of the collection as well.”
“We’re a kind of novel concept in a way,” adds Robinson, “because of the way we operate; we’re nomadic, and we overlap between arts and heritage. Sometimes people find it difficult to place us, but I like it that way, it sits with folklore in that it’s kind of shape-shifting and constantly evolving and we’re inspired by that as an organisation. That’s how we operate.”
There is still much work to be done with funding, but this evolution has seen a vision for the physical museum move teasingly closer. Adam Richards, the architect who worked on Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, has worked up an exciting design for a ‘wheel-like’ museum based on compass points and the seasons, which would allow the public to navigate the collection in an innovative and exciting way, emerging in Richards’ own words “a bit like a rabbit hole you tumble down and pop out again – hopefully a slightly changed person.”
When it comes to fruition it will be one of the strangest yet fascinating representations of our beliefs and customs that you’re likely to encounter anywhere. An essential stopping off place for anyone seeking to inject some magic and mystery into our increasingly technology-driven lives.
Museum Crush will be featuring the collection of the Museum of British Folklore in a series of forthcoming features, watch this space…
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