A quick post to highlight a great programme of speakers to be enjoyed from the comfort of your own home this September. The conference (organised by the Society of Folk Life Studies) has a distinct museum component this year, with themes connecting music, dance, song, story and related artefacts and Vernacular buildings and interiors. There will also be a (virtual) tour of Galway City Museum.
More details and booking instructions can be found here: Conference – online 2021 – Folk Life Studies
By Kate Hill
In 1959, Molly Harrison, curator of what was then the Geffrye Museum, wrote to Andrew Jewell, curator of the Museum of English Rural Life, ‘I am not completely sure what is and what is not folk material!’ – and he replied ‘I am not sure that I understand what folk material is either’. This was a little strange as the correspondence concerned the gathering of material for a Directory of Folk Collections, which he was undertaking for the Royal Anthropological Institute. The responses to his survey showed that a large number of museums around the UK held material which they considered to be ‘folk’. However, it’s clear that this was a broad and flexible category, used to describe everything from local history of any kind, to ‘Victoriana’ of any kind – it’s not surprising that there was some uncertainty about what was being investigated.
This is partly because of the way folk material emerged into museums earlier. Around 1900 a major change started to emerge in museum collections – whereas before this point museum collections had focused on classical material, natural history, and increasingly applied art and anthropology, ‘ordinary’ local historical material came, relatively suddenly, to be collected. Rapid change and urbanisation meant old ways of life seemed to be disappearing fast, and older things were increasingly aesthetically appreciated. Initially people such as Gertrude Jekyll, the garden designer, and a group of teachers, craftspeople and artists in Haslemere in Surrey, focused on the peasant - a rural figure untouched by the present whose life would be represented. In the interwar period, though, folk collections came much more to represent a broader idea of ‘everyday life’ in the past – encompassing domestic collections, craft, industry and much more. This was in many ways a response to the democratisation taking place in wider society, especially in education.
The other key innovation associated with folk museums is in display. Folk museums pioneered reconstruction displays, building on natural history dioramas, and on the display practices of international exhibitions in the last decades of the 19th century. Even before the arrival of open air museums, folk material had broken through the idea of displaying material just in relation to other examples of the same kind of thing, in glass cases, and had moved to displaying assemblages of things as they might have been encountered in the past – the fireside being an absolute classic of the interwar period. Such display methods show a desire to make the past more immediate, more intimate and more accessible – curators said they were hoping to make their museums interesting to ‘ordinary’ people and children – but there’s also evidence to suggest museum staff themselves enjoyed a certain amount of imaginative immersion through their playful engagement with museum material, dressing up, demonstrating skills, and even keeping livestock.
I’m currently undertaking research into the growth of folk collections, displays and museums between about 1920 and 1970 – some museums have been the subject of historical research, such as St Fagans National Museum, and the Museum of Cambridge. Yet, as my map above shows, this was a much more widespread phenomenon, from an earlier date, than has maybe been realised as yet, and I want to study it in a more holistic fashion, and think about how it has underlain the approaches to social and local history which we see in museums today. I will be making research trips to key places, but I also want to capture the breadth of the mid-twentieth-century museum trend towards the ‘folk’.
My key interests are in collections and display, as well as in the motivations of those making such innovations at the time, and if possible (unlikely I know!) any material relating to what visitors thought of folk material displays. I’m keen to hear from curators who may have collections of this kind from the period, especially if they know how those collections were displayed at the time, who collected them, and why. I’m also keen to hear how curators see and use these collections now. I’ve been surprised to find instances where all of collections like this are in storage – how do they relate to contemporary priorities in social history? How can/should they be used? Do they represent the historical sensibilities of the period when they were collected? What sort of display are they suited to? Please get in touch with me at email@example.com if you have anything you’d like to share with me!
Title Image: Map of self-identified ‘folk’ collections at museums, 1945 and 1959. Data for 1945 from M. M. Banks, ‘Folk Museums and Collections in England’, Folklore 56: 1 (1945); data for 1959 from survey material held at the Museum of English Rural Life. Many thanks to Dr Ollie Douglas for drawing this material to my attention.
Dr. Kate Hill is Associate Professor of History and Deputy Head, School of History and Heritage, at the University of Lincoln firstname.lastname@example.org
Our friends at the Folklore Podcast have just launched the Folklore Library & Archive at www.folklorelibrary.com. It is a new online resource that aims to preserve an ever-growing repository of research material in the field of folklore for future generations of researchers. The project, which soft-launched on May 5 2021, will soon become fully available, and is split into the following categories:
Library – an extensive folklore library of both print books and electronic editions
Audio Archives – comprising recordings of folklore talks and lectures spanning many years, as well as audio field recordings and other interviews
Video Archives – folklore customs, traditions and other items recorded in the field
Document Archives – including the UKs largest archives of spectral Black Dog accounts and many thousands of pages of other research notes
Photographic Archives – photographs taken at sites of folkloric interest, as well as photographic records of customs, traditions, objects and more
Researchers will be able to request copies of information from the Library & Archives, for which indexes will be available online, in line with copyright regs where items are not in the public domain already.
The founding team is composed of four members, all of whom are currently working on the project on a volunteer capacity: Mark Norman, folklore researcher, author and founder of The Folklore Podcast thefolklorepodcast.com; Rhianna Wynter, a storyboard artist and illustrator; Danial Wynter, archivist and creator of Board Game Feast; and Joana Varanda, writer and founder of the Twitter page Superstition Saturday Superstition Sat/urday (@SuperstitionSat) / Twitter.
For more info visit their beautifully designed website www.folklorelibrary.com
The pioneering research/music collective, Folklore Tapes, whose work explores the arcana and folklore of the UK, is celebrating 10 years of amazing output since their first release 'Two Witches' back in 2011.
FT hope to release a new audiophile press of their 'Theo Brown and the Folklore of Dartmoor'; and are looking for backers to help them get the ball rolling. Please pledge whatever you can afford here: Folklore Tapes Ten Year Anniversary Editions by Folklore Tapes — Kickstarter
The Kickstarter campaign seeks to fund two releases in celebration of the tenth anniversary of Folklore Tapes. The first is an audiophile-grade reissue of one of the label's most sought after editions, Theo Brown and the Folklore of Dartmoor. The second is a new Ten Year Anniversary Book featuring essays and hitherto unseen photography from the collective's many fieldtrips, recording sessions and live performances.
Ironstone mining began in Redcar and Cleveland in the 1840s. By 1872 some 1,648 miners arrived to the East Cleveland villages, migrating from Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland and Norfolk and even as far as the Cornish tin mines. With this migration came various superstitions and folklore from the coal and tin mining traditions.
The Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum’s (https://ironstonemuseum.co.uk/) collection of ironstone bibles reveals possible connections between artistic expression and the mining traditions of protection whilst underground. Creating small hand held art works out of local materials appears common across all mining communities, and objects like this were probably created as souvenirs and heirlooms to sell to local folk for a profit. Many would include special messages to loved ones. The ironstone bibles decoration vary, they are often gilded, sometimes including flowers or a simple border around the edge. Some are inscribed with daisy wheel patterns, but it is not known if this was meant for protection.
Working as an ironstone miner was a dangerous job, underground in dark and dirty environments so it was understandable that miners were prone to some superstitions when it came to their working life. Miners worked for long hours and the miner’s wife would often choose to work first thing in the morning, this was to avoid being seen by the men while on their way to work. Miners believed that if they saw a woman before going off to work something bad may happen to them in the mine. Whistling in the mines was forbidden and coined as 'the music of the Devil'. Omens of death included a howling dog beneath the window of a house and the crowing's of a cockbird in the still hours of the night. A popular saying in most villages was 'A whistling woman and a crowing hen Are neither fit got God not men'. Many early ironstone miners believed in the existence of underground spirits possibly from sparks down in the pit. Elves, pixies and gnomes are even said to have lived deep underground playing tricks on the miners and stealing their food.
Please contact email@example.com if you would like to know more about their collections.
Jonny Hannah is the lead artist on Museums Northumberland's Northumberland Folk project.
I was commissioned by Museums Northumberland in July 2019 to create four exhibitions inspired by folklore in the fair county of Northumberland. I’d made many artworks in the past inspired by folk heroes, folk devils, folk songs & ballads. It’s an area I’ve loved for a long time. In our google-saturated world of the 21st century, Folk has always been an antidote to this. So many of the stories & tales are unanswered, inconclusive. Does Nessie exist? Of course she does, but the delicious uncertainty is every bit as exciting as the question.
One of the key parts of Northumberland Folk, as it quickly became known, was community participation. I didn’t really want a hundred of versions of the Bamburgh worm tale, great story that it is. So I began working out how to gather tales that for me, come under the category of ‘Urban Folklore’. Folk, is often perceived as something that happened a long time ago, in a deep, dark wood, as the peasants milled around, clueless. But I knew even growing up in Fife in Scotland, how folk was ever changing, growing & being added to. Mike Wilkie, known as Moog, lived a few streets away from me, then one day, he was gone. As far as I know he’s never turned up. What happened to him? This, I firmly believe is folk. The scary big house, just near our secondary school had all sorts of tales attached to it. There was talk of orgies. But we’d go there to play the collection of broken pianos housed in one of its outbuildings. And Dunfermline was a prominent place for folk music, with a legendary club called the Howf, where a young Billy Connolly & Gerry Rafferty would perform. But then when punk cam along, our town gave birth to the Skids, which I would happily also call Folk; the music of the people, played by them.
So I began trying to get the ‘urban folk’ stories from the good folks of Northumberland. I devised story cards for them to fill out, went busking in the streets with my special, customised guitar & started to hand them out. And the tales I got back were great. From stolen & resold milk bottles to make a few pence on the side, to a recipe for a cocktail celebrating a (fairly) local football hero (the slice of lime pulled all the other ingredients, like cheap cider & old whisky, together brilliantly). One story told of a certain public phone box (remember them?) in Bamburgh, where a call from a failing marriage gave birth to another successful one. So, romance, intrigue, the odd ghost, and a man called ‘Sticky’, & much more besides.
These stories are not in the books, until I make the book, or in my case… newspaper. So, as well as having many of these stories in my exhibitions, alongside more obvious tales such as the brave hero Lizzie Storey, & the amazing muscles of Jimmy Strength, a new newspaper (title undecided, possibly The Northumberland Folk Courier), will be published to mark the public start of the project next spring. Who knows, there may have to be two editions of the paper, as the stories keep coming. During the bleakness of lockdown, a true folk hero, Jack Charlton passed away. I know almost nothing about football, but I know Big Jack is well worth featuring. There will also be a separate publication celebrating the women from the area. As can often happen, the history books cut the women out. So, I’m going to do the opposite. From historical characters like the strong Josephine Butler, to women I’ve met along the way. I sat down with Marjorie Mountain, at the The Old School gallery in Alnmouth, one afternoon, at a time when I was having doubts about the project, & the way I was gathering information. But that conversation, by the ex-school mistress, sorted me out. Marjorie described the folks of Northumberland, having gone through more than their fair share of industrial upheaval, as ‘stoic & brave’. And then in an equally poetic manner, saw the landscape of this part of England, as ‘handsome, wild & free’. And there I had it, almost a sub-title for my entire project; Northumberland Folk; stoic, brave, handsome wild & free.
And more recently, I’ve gone right back to the start, & been obsessively drawing the dragon & brave knight from the ancient tale of the Bamborough Worm. But it’ll sit well with stories of found WWII Luftwaffe mascots & a giant ringworm… I hope. Even if it is all incongruous, & more akin to a car-boot sale, that’s what Folk can often be. Try as we might to control & curate it, it’s by the people, for them, & I’m delighted to say there’s no telling where that’ll end up. But four museums in Northumberland is a good place to start…
By Diane A. Rodgers, Co-founder of the Centre for Contemporary Legend and Senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University.
Folklore is a living, evolving part of our everyday lives and is present in the cultural artefacts that surround us. Significant elements of this cultural fabric are film and television, streamed into homes via a number of devices and from across many different countries and decades. My research interest lies in how folklore is communicated onscreen in this way, not only by what is represented on screen, but how and in what contexts. Examination of such texts can suggest to us how customs and rituals change over time and evolutions of belief and attitude, which directly affect how people may experience relevant archive material.
For example, consider the representation of Voodoo in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) or shrunken heads in numerous cinematic examples, including Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1994). Texts like these may be the very first experience many people have with concepts about such physical artefacts, before having come into close contact with them in a museum and, perhaps, even before questions about racism or colonialism are raised for them (the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford recently removed its famous collection of shrunken heads as part of a decolonisation process).
Dried cats such as those exhibited at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, traditionally placed in buildings for luck or to ward off evil spirits, can be given a more sinister dimension of magic by film and television. For example, ‘Baby’ an episode of Nigel Kneale’s 1976 television series Beasts, features a couple finding a dried creature in an urn, bricked up in a wall. In this case, however, rather than bringing any kind of luck with it at all as an apotropaic device, this dried curiosity has in fact been imbued with an extremely unpleasant curse.
People’s encounter with such exhibits are likely already coloured in some way by (potentially problematic) onscreen representations and it is vital to study the way folklore is presented in popular media because of this. Museum exhibits can educate and reshape common understanding, providing unique and additional contexts to such material as an experience in themselves. I am a fan fan of both Powell and Pressburger’s classic wartime film A Canterbury Tale (1942), in which characters stay in the Hand of Glory Inn and The Wicker Man (1953) in which Edward Woodward wakes up to a hand of glory burning by his bedside. Imagine my delight, then, when I happened across a ‘real’ hand of glory at the Whitby town museum collection some years ago. I look forward to more such future encounters, magical or otherwise!
Diane A. Rodgers
The Peacocks were a distinguished family of scholars who lived at Bottesford Manor and worked in North Lincolnshire during the later 19th and early 20thcentury. They were Edward Peacock (above left), and his seven children: Adrian, Edith, Florence, Julian, Mabel (above right), Maximillian and Ralf. Although a farmer, Edward was primarily an historian, who published numerous works from serious academic studies to popular novels. He educated and passed on his enthusiasm to his children.
Although based on studies of this area, most of the Peacocks’ work is of national importance. Edward’s two dictionaries of local dialect terms were ground breaking. A third volume compiled by Mabel and Maximilian, was eventually pieced together by Eileen Elder. Adrian wrote widely on agriculture and natural history, Florence was an historian and poet, Julian a genealogist, and Mabel the most widely recognised writer in Lincolnshire dialect. Maximilian was a collector of dialect and natural history observations.
The Peacock Family Archive is now part of the North Lincolnshire Museums collections. It consists of agricultural records, domestic records, common-place books, lesson books, drawings, photographs, diaries, personal correspondence and Lincolnshire dialect cards. An incredibly rich resource, it shines a light on the views and lives of people who lived in the local area from the early 18th century to the early 20th century.
The photographs here show Edward and his daughter Mabel, two of the people we have to thank for recording the local dialect.
Post written by Rose Nicholson, Heritage Manager for North Lincolnshire Museums, which includes North Lincolnshire Museum and Normanby Hall Country Park. Please go to the Members Area for contact details.
Ethel Rudkin (1893-1984) was a pioneering archaeologist, historian, folklorist, recorder of oral tradition, and collector of ‘bygones’, who lived and worked in Lincolnshire. She has been described as one of the last of the ‘old style’ antiquarians.
Ethel Hutchinson was born in Willoughton, and married George Henry Rudkin in 1917. He became a commissioned officer during the First World War, but tragically died in 1918. As a child Ethel visited the Peacock Family at Bottesford Manor with her parents, and this clearly fostered an interest in folklore and dialect for which she is best known. Her 1936 publication, ‘Lincolnshire Folklore’, is the best-known account of the subject in this area. It can be viewed as forming a direct succession to the work of Edward and Mabel Peacock.
Bob Paisley, Ethel Rudkin’s friend and editor of her fascinating diary has this to say of her legacy: “Due to her wide ranging interests, Rudkin never viewed individual subjects in isolation, and often discovered unique connections between folklore and tradition, archaeology and history. She was willing to pass on her discoveries and influenced a new generation of Lincolnshire archaeologists and historians.”
As well as copies of all her publications, the Rudkin Collection at North Lincolnshire Museum consists of notes, photographs, ephemera, her library of folklore and history books and archaeological small finds from throughout Lincolnshire and including comparative material from abroad. The star archaeological object is a Neolithic jade axe from Wroot. There is also a small collection of folklore objects, including a wooden hobby horse from a plough jag team and witch balls. Poignantly we also have one of Ethel’s handbags, which contains the flowers worn in her hair at her wedding to George and a handful of letters received from him whilst away serving during the First World War.
The Coorg Battle Talisman. This object was created in India to protect the wearer in combat. The attendant stories about the item, gleaned from contemporary newspaper accounts, family tradition, and the museum accession register illustrate, with bloody immediacy, the circumstances in which many objects in UK museums were collected during the British occupation in India.
On April 3, 1834, Captain Robert Gordon from Kirkcudbright marched with a division of British and Indian troops into Coorg, southern India. Their objective was to depose Chikka Veera Rajendra, the ruler of that kingdom, who had ceased – according to the British – to be ‘a dependent ally of the East India Company’.
6000 men armed with rifles and Howitzers marched on Coorg. The Coorg resistance was brave but in vain. With minimal casualties the British forces routed the Rajah’s strongholds. Hundreds of Coorgs were killed. One of the dead carried this talisman with a Persian charm inscribed into the bronze:
‘He [the wearer of the talisman] is the Victorious, O Holy and Almighty God, the confirmation of Thy glorious command hath sent this wretched and insignificant person to make war against the enemy, but apart from the aid and favour of the Holiest and Most High I have no father. Therefore my sustenance depends wholly upon Him.’
This talisman or kavacha was probably bought from a sadhu or holy man. When carried into war the proper way to wear a protective talisman was over the heart or over the buttocks. The talisman addresses Madheva or Shiva. Robert Gordon picked it off the corpse of the soldier and later donated it to the Stewartry Museum in his home town.
Chikka Veera Rajendra was defeated, but he marched out of Coorg alive and very wealthy. His lands were forfeit but he received a monthly pension of £6000. In 1852 he and his daughter sailed to England. He pursued a case in the English courts to recover his fortune, but in vain. His daughter, Gowramma, was baptized by the Archbishop of Canterbury with Queen Victoria as her godmother.
Post written by Peter Hewitt, Museums Officer for Collections, Dumfries & Galloway Museums Service, founder of the Folklore Museums Network.
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