Monday, 21 January 2019

Entranced by Spellbound: a personal reflection on The Ashmolean’s recent exhibition by Sophie Parkes-Nield

Our marketing and comms manager, Sophie Parkes-Nield, visited The Ashmolean in Oxford to learn more about ritual, magic and witchcraft

Who doesn’t love a good bit of witchcraft? Perhaps the fascination is in us all, as The Ashmolean’s Spellbound exhibition – subtitled ‘magic, ritual and witchcraft – was packed when I visited in December 2018.

Miniature queues formed good naturedly at cabinets full of illuminated manuscripts, talismans and charms, but the exhibition made good use of the diminutive space – and anticipated popularity – by offering booths and immersive experiences, to negate the need for a linear narrative or lengthy interpretation panels. In short, this exhibition was neat-but-complete.

Spellbound delighted in giving us a little bit of what we already know, using witchcraft as the hook. For example, one of the first major moments we stop and pause is at the scales on which women were weighed against copies of the Bible. Then there’s the poppets, the witch bottles (objects which have captivated our Anna FC Smith recently) and the art depicting witches with their familiars, in orgies or plotting 'our' demise; it’s familiar stuff.

But most powerful was when the anticipated and expected was interpreted through another medium. In what felt like the centre of the exhibition sat a booth where visitors were invited to listen to the 1646 testimony of Katherine Parsons, who accused her neighbour, Ellen Garrison, of ‘pulling her to pieces’ and bewitching her children to death. To read the confession of one accused witch – tormented by the death of her husband and children, and living in abject poverty – would be moving, but hearing it proved, appropriately, haunting.

The exhibition hoped to reimagine, too. Contemporary artworks from Ackroyd & Harvey, Annie Cattrell and Katharine Dowson sat side by side with historical artefacts, and with little interpretation, we were invited to view them with the same curiosity. It was Katharine Dowson’s installation, Concealed Shield, from which  I took most enjoyment: enticed into a pulsing red sanctuary, I soon realised this was no sanctuary at all. What were those scuttles I could hear in the rafters? What creatures made those shadows?

An unsettling experience, the installation takes its inspiration from the objects found concealed in the walls of cottages, barns and outhouses to watch over the family that live there, to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits, to which a good third of the exhibition was also dedicated. Mummified cats and children’s shoes secreted in our domestic walls seem eerie to us now, but, the exhibition was keen to point out, rituals and charms are still an integral part of our lives now, as the wall of urban love locks demonstrated.

Magic, ritual and witchcraft, Spellbound told us, is less about the occult, the weird and the supernatural, and more about the very human needs to explain, to understand and to feel. This, of course, won’t be news to fans of Doc Rowe’s work, but if you missed the exhibition, the very excellent accompanying catalogue, Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft, is available from the Ashmolean’s website.

Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft ran between 31 August 2018 to 6 January 2019 at the Ashmolean in Oxford.