Magical Thoughts: The Making of Spellbound

Exhibition branding on the exterior of the Ashmolean. Photo: Author.

Our exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, led by Sophie Page with art historian Marina Wallace, has disappeared into the ether and is now nothing more than an enchanting memory (although you can still order the catalogue). Fleeting and evanescent in a manner strangely appropriate to its theme, its crystal balls, curse poppets, pierced animal hearts, and mummified cats have long since been returned to their lending institutions and individuals – and, possibly, to chimney breasts and crawlspaces – and the sepulchral, creepy, cabinet of curiosities-style atmosphere we cultivated in the exhibition galleries has given way to the light, air, and wry minimalism of a Jeff Koons retrospective (which opened today).

One of the Spellbound galleries. Photo: Ståle Eriksen for Stanton Williams.

One of the aspects of the exhibition we all found most rewarding were our dialogues with architects, contemporary artists, professional storytellers, historical cartoonists, and the Ashmolean’s in-house team. To document this key attribute of Spellbound, to find out how these colleagues experienced and were influenced by their work on the show, and to prove that it wasn’t all a dark gothic dream, late last year I visited studios, kitchens, and offices in London, Oxford, and Bath to conduct in-depth interviews with everyone with whom we were fortunate enough to collaborate; the resulting seven films are now available on YouTube, and are briefly introduced below. Generously funded by the University of East Anglia, the interviews form part of the qualitative and quantitative evidence each university involved in the exhibition is collecting and analysing for its respective Impact Case Studies. An increasingly important component of the Research Excellence Framework (or REF), the government audit of university research, these are brief portfolios or narratives demonstrating how scholarly work has effected, changed, or benefited individuals and communities beyond academia.

Ackroyd & Harvey, Contemporary Artists

Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey discuss their installation From Aether to Air, a sculptural response to medieval magic and medieval cosmology, on which they worked with Sophie Page from UCL.

Katharine Dowson, Contemporary Artist

Katharine Dowson discusses her installation Concealed Shield, a sculptural response to ritual concealment and the magical protection of the home, on which she worked with Owen Davies from the University of Hertfordshire.

Annie Cattrell, Contemporary Artist

Annie Cattrell discusses her installation Verocity 1 and 2, a filmic and sculptural response to early modern witch trials, on which she worked with Malcolm Gaskill from the University of East Anglia.

Agnes Valencak & Catriona Pearson, Exhibitions Manager & Coordinator

Agnes Valencak and Catriona Pearson from the Ashmolean’s exhibitions office discuss the challenges and rewards of mounting the show.

Sanjay Ghodke, Architect

Sanjay Ghodke from architectural design practice Stanton Williams discusses his innovative and atmospheric design for the exhibition galleries.

Olivia Armstrong, Professional Storyteller

Olivia Armstrong discusses the two storytelling sessions she designed for the show and performed at the Ashmolean: Spellbound Stories (inspired by the life and death of accused seventeenth-century witch Anne Bodenham); and Talisman Tales (inspired by medieval magical objects).

Hannah Sackett, Historical Cartoonist

Hannah Sackett discusses three comics she created for the exhibition: The Magician’s Lament; The Keepers of the House; and A Most Certain, Strange, and True Guide to Witchcraft.