Is there such a thing as ‘magic’? – Elizabeth Graham (UCL)
When I was carrying out research on the Franciscan evangelisation of the Maya in Yucatan and Belize in the 16th century, I realised I needed to know more about the Christianisation of Europe. This research then got me interested in the terminology used to discuss Christianity, particularly the terms that figured, and to some extent still figure, in the positioning of ‘us’ (good guys) and ‘them’ (bad guys): words like the devil, demons, cults, pagans, miracles, saints, and magic. Saints are the good deities, demons are the bad ones; miracles are performed by God, magic is the work of the devil. Preliminary research suggests that the word ‘magic’ derives from early Christian labelling of the practices of Persian non-Christian holy men. If this holds true, then ‘magic’ is derived from the demonization of the cultural practices and beliefs of ‘the other’. It is, in and of itself, meaningless; it takes its usage from historical context. Why, then, do we still use it? Why has it been such a hot topic in anthropology, as in ‘magic’ vs. ‘religion’? (I would even hold that there is no such thing as ‘religion’!). I hope in this presentation to explore these questions and stimulate debate.
‘Objects of Power: Magic or Sacred or What?’ – Crispin Paine (UCL)
This short talk will look at some of the objects that have the power, or can be used, to effect personal change. Some are called sacred, some medical, some magic, while some can be therapeutic and others can effect real damage. We shall look at a variety of objects of power – holy relics, amulets, lucky charms, quack medicines and simple souvenirs – and (rather than attempt answers) ask questions. What makes them different? If there is a difference between religion and magic, who is defining it? And above all, how should museums behave towards objects of power, and how should they respond to the variety of attitudes visitors are likely to take to them? What responsibilities do these things give their curators?
Revealing the Ritually Concealed: Tracing the concealed shoe from its moment of discovery – Ceri Houlbrook (University of Manchester)
Concealed shoes are shoes which were purposely concealed within the walls, chimney breasts, and roof spaces of domestic buildings. A vast number of these have been discovered throughout Britain, dating primarily to the 18th and 19th centuries. The motivations behind their concealments are still unknown to us, but the prominent theory suggests that shoes were employed as apotropaic devices, concealed within homes to protect the inhabitants from malignant preternatural forces. The metonymical connection between a shoe and its previous wearer is believed to imbue the shoe with the necessary protective power, and one theory suggests that, to possess this power, shoes must bear the unambiguous imprint of their past wearers, hence why the vast majority of them are old, well-worn or damaged.
Concealed shoes are often found during restructuring works, and from the point of discovery, their biographies can follow a variety of courses. Some debate, for example, surrounds their removal. Some finders believe it to be ‘bad luck’ to remove concealed shoes and therefore wish to keep them in situ. Other concealed shoes are donated to museums, where still more debate surrounds their treatment: should they be restored by textile conservationists, as some are, or should they be left in their original state, their damaged conditions being considered central to the interpretation of the custom?
Focusing on two caches of concealed shoes discovered in Ilkley and Otley, North Yorkshire, this paper aims to trace the complex biographies of these objects following discovery, considering how they have been variously perceived and treated by their finders and custodians.
Economies of magic: reassessing interpretations of cowries in the African Iron Age – Holly Atkinson (University of Manchester)
Cowries have been incorporated into a myriad of African contexts and artefacts, whilst their presence on the continent is one of long standing. Interpretations of cowries, however, have remained superficial. Influenced by the art historical approach, cowries in museum contexts have been considered from a primarily aesthetic viewpoint. Concurrently, archaeological interpretations have focused mainly on cowries as currency; a consequence both of their prolific use during the slave trade, and of European imports, particularly in West Africa. Apparent as painted and embossed motifs on pottery, gourds and figurines, as divination counters and burial goods, and materially incorporated into clothing, charms, furniture, power figures, masks and even walls, this variety of functions begs us to question the reason(s) for their value.
Museum and archaeological approaches have failed to appreciate their complex and multiple biographies. Not merely aesthetic products of trade, cowries were a means by which ritual, social and political processes could be negotiated and maintained. Adopting the definition of magic put forward by this session, it is therefore suggested that cowries in Iron Age Africa were perceived to have medicinal potency and formed part of a ritual economy. Consequently, this paper argues for the need to consider and engage with the material properties which made cowries potentially magical objects. This approach will be supported and explored using African cowry artefacts in museums; to also indicate how we can begin to overcome the lack of engagement with notions of magic in museum settings.
Behind Glass: Magical and Religious Objects Out of Context – Natalie Armitage (University of Manchester)
The nature of the Vodou altar and much of the associated magical practice is one of assemblage, while many objects are recurrent in various instances, many of the artefacts are found and then assembled to create meaning. These sacred objects are also not fixed, their nature is changeable, often being added to by the various visitors and observers with countless offerings. It could be argued that the objects in themselves are not necessarily sacred or magical, produced for such a purpose as in a westernised religion, but the altar/object becomes so by means of the accumulation and collaboration with an audience. Can such objects exist in a traditional museum setting? Or does the nature of their assemblage and their necessity for interaction render them inert in such a location?
If, as Hooper-Greenhill asserts, the strength of the museum lies in providing ‘people an experience of the real thing such that a desire to know more ensues’ (1999, 1) then how does this relate to the specific objects of a culture, such as Vodou, in the ‘behind glass’ museum culture that we are all familiar with; where the material objects of worship seem defined by the interaction with an audience, not inherent in the object itself? Are the material artefacts of such a practice only viewed in their true sense when there is a reciprocation with the viewer? Is their very nature interactive, and how does that change the way in which we might approach the museology of such objects?
Collecting Magic – Tabitha Cadbury (University of Bristol)
Although references to popular magic have permeated historical records for millennia, it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that English charms and amulets were systematically collected and catalogued by museums. This paper examines changing tides of museum practice in collecting and cataloguing English material magic. It provides an overview of the most prolific collectors – folklorists, curators and early anthropologists such as Edward Lovett, Herbert Toms and Alfred Cort Haddon – and influential museums. Why did academic and popular interest in documenting this material ebb and flow, and why is the tide of interest rising again today?
The Materiality of Finnish Folk Magic – Objects in the Collections of the National Museum in Helsinki – Sonja Hukantaival (University of Turku)
In Finland the material aspects of magic have long been of marginal interest to scholars. Still, during the late 19th and early 20th century academics and lay collectors in Finland gathered several magical objects into museums, in addition to vast folklore collections describing magic practices. Matters of ‘vernacular’ or ‘folk’ religion including magic practices and beliefs have a long research history within the disciplines of Finnish folkloristics and comparative religion, but neither have had any particular interest in material aspects. Recently, however, some Finnish archaeologists have “discovered” these phenomena and finally also the material part of magic is becoming the object of study.
This paper concentrates on the objects classified as magical in the collections of the National Museum in Helsinki. These date mainly to the late 19th and early 20th century, and are thus contemporary with the archived folklore accounts illuminating the meanings and use of such objects. The collection includes for example miniature coffins containing an impaled frog or wooden stick figure, magic pouches with various content, animal bones and teeth, round “snake’s court stones”, and curious growths of trees. In addition to these the museum also holds numerous Stone Age tools which evidently have been used as potent “thunderstones”.
The aim of this paper is to present this collection, to show the characteristics of objects in Finnish folk magic, and also to analyze the process of ascribing magical meanings to a natural or constructed object, both from the viewpoint of practitioners and museum personnel.
Redefining ‘Magical Medicines’: Public Engagement and Curation of African Medico-religious Objects at Manchester Museum – Bryn Trevelyan James (King’s College, London)
Since Evans-Pritchard’s (1937) seminal publication, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, African medico-religious practices have typically been interpreted within a rubric of ‘magic’ and the supernatural. A consequence of this has been the widespread anthropological tendency to reduce healing practices from across Africa to a spiritual or religious metaphysic, disregarding material culture and associated practices (Morris 2011: 245). Problematically, this in turn limits disciplines, like archaeology and museology, which rely upon anthropology analogically (Insoll 2011a: 145).
Having researched West African medico-religious practices both in Manchester Museum and on multiple seasons of fieldwork in Ghana since 2008, the question of how to build a broader base of analogy for exploring the region’s ‘magical objects’ has been a long-term focus. This paper unpacks the museum-based cycle of that investigation, particularly as Manchester Museum’s ‘Researcher in Residence’. Grounded theoretically within the field of archaeological ethnography (Hamilakis & Anagnostopoulos 2009), academics from various disciplines and diverse members of Manchester’s African community were invited to redefine objects in the collection via workshops, events and installations. Here, the alternate beliefs and material biographies emerging from these dialogues, and the utility of a circular process of enquiry within museum contexts, is examined through primary case studies.
Magic in Museums: the case from Estonia – Tõnno Jonuks (Estonian Literary Museum) and Kristiina Johanson (University of Tartu)
Estonian museology has traditionally been deliberately ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’, thus missing interpretative labels, like ‘religious’, ‘magical’ etc. Still two collections can be emphasised as exceptions – Estonian National Museum with its ethnographical collection, including several items used for healing magic; and the Museum of Pärnu. The latter is especially interesting – being one of the first local museums in Estonia based on private collections, it includes several objects with attractive legends. Most of the objects are Stone Age lithic items that have been considered “thunderbolts“ and used for different magical purposes by the local community. The discussion of the paper will focus on how magic has been used, or more usually – why it has been avoided in Estonian museums and why most of the objects have been treated in emphatically ‘scientific’ way.
The case of the spinning statuette: ‘magic’ at the Manchester Museum? – Campbell Price (Manchester Museum) and Chiara Zuanni (University of Manchester)
In June 2013, a video of an Egyptian statuette spinning by itself in its case in the Egypt Gallery of the Manchester Museum went viral. The video caught also the attention of media worldwide, prompting a huge public response to the episode. This paper aims to discuss how ideas of magic, drawing on perceptions of Ancient Egypt, were used by the museum, the media, and the public to interpret and comment on the spinning statuette.
The statuette would have been set up in a temple around 1750 BC. It was dedicated in honour of a man called Nebiu, and carries a text promising offerings for the deceased from the god Osiris. It was donated to the museum in 1933, and since then has been on display.
During the media storm that followed the publication of the video, many hinted at a ‘magic event‘, which could be related to popular perceptions of Ancient Egypt: ideas from movies and popular culture were widely used to explain and comment, often ironically, on the episode. At the same time, in the museum galleries people were jostling to see the statuette and questioning the museum staff. Therefore, this paper will observe how media and museum audiences have used the concept of ‘magic’ in relation to the spinning statuette: what beliefs and attitudes towards ‘magic’ emerge from these comments? Why was the museum criticised for suggesting a ‘magic’ connection? And what have been the outcomes of the episode for the museum and for our understanding of public perceptions of Ancient Egypt?