Interview: Graham King, of the Museum Of Witchcraft Cornwall, UK
This week's guest is Graham King, who has kindly spared us some time from his hectic schedule running a unique Museum.
DE: Hi Graham, thanks for doing this. For anyone who doesn't know, can you tell us a little about the history of the museum and how you run it?
GK: Cecil Williamson opened the first museum of witchcraft on the Isle of Man in 1951; he employed Gerald Gardner as 'resident witch'. The friendship between Gerald and Cecil didn't last, and after a few years Cecil moved his museum to Windsor, England, selling the 'Witches Mill' building to Gardner. For a few years Gardner and Williamson were running separate museums. Williamson moved his museum around the South of England, eventually settling here in Boscastle in 1960. I purchased the museum from Cecil at midnight on Halloween 1996. At the time I had decided to radically adjust my life style - I had been running a company manufacturing cameras for national libraries and archives; the work involved a lot of travelling and stress. I sold the company, the flash car and my Hampshire cottage, and walked the 300 miles to Cornwall to take over the guardianship of the museum.
DE: Wow, so, a rite of (literally) passage?
GK: Yes! Cecil Williamson died five years later; he was 90 years old. He was a fascinating old man; apparently he was occult advisor to the British secret service during the war and practised all kinds of magic.
DE: He seems ripe for a biography!
GK: Yes, he had plenty of amazing stories; we have a good collection of his letters and writings in the museum archive, and maybe one day we will publish some of his material. We have spent the last few years refurbishing the museum, cataloguing all the exhibits and gaining a lot of new acquisitions. We are open to the public from roughly Easter to Halloween, but we can be flexible for pre-booked parties out-of-season, or overseas visitors if need be, providing it's all arranged well in advance. We have an extensive library of books, correspondence, audio and video, which we make available for researchers by prior appointment, and hold separately from the museum itself. These research visitors range from History professors to students to occult authors to private individuals who are doing their own studies. We also attract a lot of tourist visitors. Boscastle is a small Cornish fishing village, with a mystical atmosphere, lots of scenic walks and holiday cottages, and so much of it is passing trade. We also have a good number of repeat customers, and of course among the Pagan community we are pretty well known. We had around 40,000 visitors last year.
DE: And it's only £2 to get in. I don't think I've ever seen a paid attraction that was such value for money - it's the same cost as a couple of coffees in the village, for maybe 90 minutes of experience if you read all of the captions and have a good look at all of the exhibits. How do you manage on that entry fee? Especially with the damage to tourist numbers from Foot and Mouth disease in 2001.
GK: Foot and Mouth was horrible, for the community in general, and especially for businesses down here, but once the public started to come back we actually had quite a good year. With the footpaths closed visitors were looking for other things to do. Most museums survive on grant money, but because of our subject matter we don't attract grants, we have to survive on the door take. We are not a huge business and we rely a lot on donations. We have a Society of Friends who pay an annual subscription, in return for which we have a social event down here once a year, with invited speakers who give a couple of relevant lectures. Also we send the Friends regular newsletters. The annual subscriptions and any other donations are used for special acquisitions and conservation of the archive material. Last year for example (2001) we had very short notice to drive over to Sussex and rescue a huge cache of papers and artefacts belonging to the late Alex Sanders. We couldn't have purchased it without the money in the 'Friends' account. This collection is still being catalogued, and some is on display, but from an initial look through, it appears to be a very important archive, and the Friends' pool of money allowed us to save it from either being split up forever, or leaving the country.
We are also bequeathed individual items, especially working tools of deceased occultists, and entire collections; such as the Richel Collection, left to us by a Dutch man, Bob Richel… this is an astonishing batch of beautiful occult drawings and items, from some kind of OTO-like sex magick group in the 1920s. It's all in Dutch and we are still working on finding people who can translate it all for us.
GK: Much of our work like that relies on volunteers or people who come to use the research facilities doing some work for us in return. It's a nice arrangement, of mutual benefit. We were very fortunate in the summer of 2001, when a number of students from Pittsburgh University in America came over as work experience and to do research for their own degree projects. As a part of the deal they spent 3 weeks Dewey Decimal cataloguing the library and inputting the books into a database, which we will be putting online soon. That kind of project would have taken years to complete if we'd been doing it ourselves in between all the other work needed here. The database should be really useful - it means that you can input a search term, like 'curses', and get a list of books that contain information on the subject - something that would take years to do by a manual search.
DE: As I said to you recently, the feel of the museum reminds me most of the Pitt-Rivers anthropology and history museum in Oxford, almost overflowing with amazing stuff. You have a huge breadth, from Mandrakes to Crowley to Wiccan ritual tools to original 1960s occult film posters to Witch bottles to Golden Dawn swords… Is there a point when you will have to say "stop, we can't display any more for a while", or do you rotate exhibits?
GK: A bit of both! We are constantly updating and changing what is on show, like the new Alex Sanders and Austin Spare sections, and although we are really filling the space now there seems to be enough scope to keep it interesting, but not too big. We're not the British Museum, but I've seen far smaller places.
DE: There's a lot in the press lately about cultural and religious groups reclaiming artefacts like the Elgin Marbles and aboriginal, tribal skeletons from Western museums, after they were pillaged by early colonialists, but often only after legal battles and a great deal of philosophical debate about human rights and concepts of 'ownership' - you were involved in a very moving 'rescue' of an old witch a while back?
GK: When we took over the museum we inherited the skeleton of Joan Wytte, a witch who died in Bodmin Gaol in 1813. She had been on display here for many years, but we thought it was time that she was given a decent burial. We buried her quietly and respectfully in a beautiful spot in a local wood. We have recently placed a memorial stone near the burial site and it has become a local legend. We often find flowers left at the stone.
DE: Yes, I've seen people in the museum nearly in tears reading the full story about that. Not many museums would have the integrity to deliberately give up displaying her - skeletons are always a 'spooky' attraction for the more tabloid end of the market. I know you're on pretty good terms with the local vicar, but there has been some trouble in the past with visiting fundamentalists: do you still get death threats?
GK: Yes, we occasionally get anonymous hate mail including death threats, but far less now than a few years ago. In general we get on very well with the local community. An article which we were consulted on was recently published in an American knitting magazine about using glass knitting needles and black wool to cast spells, and the editor received several letters of complaint and some subscriptions were cancelled!
DE: So you have a fair bit to do with the media?
GK: Yes, we make the most out of the media. Free publicity is always welcome and some of the TV companies even pay us a little which all helps. It also helps us get our message across especially when working with people like Jo Pearson at the Open University filming here for their Religious Studies and Paganism degree course materials. (Note from Dave- we have an interview with Jo in progress, watch this space)
DE: Sounds like a more than full time job; being museum curators, researchers, PR for paganism in general, media advisors and just for a break you're a volunteer Coastguard too?
GK: Yep, I like to keep busy.
DE: Two last quick questions - you often have people coming in and bringing things found in their attics or the effects of a late grandparent etc; what's the most amazing find you've had?
GK: I love our collection of Mandrakes from Holland; they are real little characters!
DE: And what is top of your 'wants' list right now?
GK: All I want is lots of visitors - they're the people who secure the survival of the collection.
DE: Good point. And one to stress; every visitor contributes directly to the preservation and expansion of a collection that is unique in the UK, if not the world.
Well, at time of writing it's approaching the Easter opening of the museum and I know there is a lot to do yet before you're ready for the public, so many thanks Graham, and all the best for a very successful season and many to come. If any readers are down in the West Country during the season, set aside a day to visit this great resource and enjoy some really wild Cornish coastline too- the area is renowned amongst walkers: the pasties in the village shop are of semi-mythical status too.
All images copyright Museum of Witchcraft 2002. No reproduction without their prior express permission.
Museum website http://www.museumofwitchcraft.com
More information here about joining the Friends of the Museum http://www.wiccanmuse.org in the UK.
There is an American branch http://www.friendsofwitchcraft.com of the Friends too.
Support the RNLI http://www.rnli.org.uk/Home.asp - saving lives at sea.
Travel to Boscastle: The village is located between Bude and Tintagel on the North Cornwall coast. The area has reasonable public transport links and plenty of car parking in the village. You may wish to stay overnight, in which case I can recommend the Bridge House B&B and Riverside Hotel, phone Peter on 01840 250011 for booking and price information. Tintagel is famed for its Arthurian legend connections and both Boscastle and Tintagel could be visited in a day trip if staying locally.