‘Any idea of value?’. This question was posed to me by the coordinators of the project’s exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, opening at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology this summer, as we discussed one of the items to be displayed. The object is a tiny, crudely-cut wooden figurine, found on a roof-beam in a Tudor cottage in Burwash, Sussex (find out more about this curious artefact in my earlier blog post). It will be exhibited in Room Two, one of three main spaces in the exhibition, which will focus respectively on the scales of cosmos, home, and community; on the medieval, modern, and early modern periods; and on the emotions of love, fear, and rage. Here, it will stand alongside other ritually concealed objects, from shoes found in the roof space to a toad discovered up a chimney, forming part of the narrative of how people in the past (may have – see below) magically fortified their homes. The figurine needed to be transported from the University of Hertfordshire to Oxford, and as one of the researchers on the project, I was discussing travel arrangements and insurance details with museum staff. So, did I have any idea of the object’s value?
The question stumped me. How can you assign value to such an ambiguous item? Economically it’s probably worthless. Its small size, cheap material, and seemingly unrefined manufacture amount to an object that probably wouldn’t sell at a car boot sale. But the mysterious circumstances of its discovery gives it historical and cultural significance. In fact, as the only recorded wooden figurine to have been found tucked away on a roof beam (to my knowledge), it is unique. Precious. Invaluable, even. How does one value the invaluable?
This is just one of the many issues I – and others – have encountered in the exhibiting of ritually concealed objects, the significance of which I’ve been exploring in my Inner Lives sub-project The Concealed Revealed (do check out its website, or the ever-growing spatial inventory of concealed items in our HistoryPin collection). Another issue concerns their availability. While there are many in museum collections, most stay with their finders. As I’ve written in a recently published History Workshop Journal article (for a little shameless self-publicity, read it here), many finders engage emotionally with the objects found in the fabric of their homes. Some display them proudly for visitors to see, such as the child’s shoe below, found up the chimney breast of a cottage in Norfolk, now exhibited in a box-frame within the fireplace. You can watch an interview with another appreciative East Anglian shoe discoverer here.
Other people choose to re-conceal their finds, expressing the belief that the objects belong in and to the house, and that it wouldn’t be right to displace them. Most finders claim not to be particularly superstitious, but they still want the objects returned to their original hiding places. If they were put there by past occupants to magically inoculate the house, then why risk removing them? Anecdotes also circulate of people sending their finds to museums only to be beset by bad luck, and quickly requesting the objects back.
Another issue around the exhibition of such objects is interpretation. There are myriad theories surrounding the custom of concealment. Perhaps they were hidden for protection or for luck. They could have been mementoes or time capsules. Some may have been interred for the simple function of insulation, whilst others may be the result of accidental losses, practical jokes, or child’s play. Thousands of words have been penned on this subject, exploring the nuances of concealment and approaching the custom from different angles and disciplines. But visitors to an exhibition often don’t want thousands of words. Many don’t even want hundreds. They want minimal text accompanying the primary attraction – the objects themselves (indeed, the Ashmolean’s official style guide stipulates that single object labels must be no longer than 70 words!). So, when restricted by such stringent word limits, the curator faces a dilemma: should the most popular explanations be reproduced; should more balanced interpretations be squeezed in; or should they give only the most basic information and allow visitors to form their own theories?
I don’t write this post to bemoan the challenges of working on an exhibition (a task I’ve thoroughly enjoyed), but rather to begin exploring how this process has given me new insights into the ambiguous and elusive world of concealment. Not only has it provided a window into the intricacies of curatorship, but it has also given me the opportunity to view these fascinating hidden items from a whole new angle. Not only as the concealed revealed, but as the concealed, revealed, and displayed.
Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft will run at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology from 31 August 2018 – 6 January 2019. Now Booking!