The Ashmolean’s enchanting and uncanny exhibition Spellbound tells a European history of magical practices from the 12th century to the present day. Spellbound offers an intimate, comprehensive, and slightly gory look at how people have constructed meaning from myth and superstitious belief. It shows us the ways in which this was done in the absence of modern scientific understanding, and reminds us that, for all our technological progress, magical thinking remains alive and well today.
The first room you will enter on arrival has a specially set up ladder, prompting us to consider how much superstition still pervades our everyday life – will you pass under it to continue to the other rooms?
Visitors to Spellbound will get to see a unicorn’s horn, a medium’s ectoplasm, and padlocks cut from the Centenary Bridge in Leeds when their burdensome weight foretold not undying love but the imminent collapse of the entire bridge.
Also among the collection is a human heart encased in lead, books on how to identify witches at the assizes, and the ever infamous small, silvery bottle, sealed with wax, that professedly contains a central figure to the exhibition – the witch.
The Witch in the Bottle is on loan from the nearby Pitt Rivers museum. The Pitt Rivers received the bottle in 1915 from an old woman in Sussex. She warned: “They do say there be a witch in this and if you’re let un out there be a peck o’ trouble.” Delightfully, her warning has been heeded, and the bottle has never been opened!
Spellbound features a wonderful range of paintings, medieval sculptures, prints by Albrecht Dürer, manuscripts, and contemporary art installations including an unearthly and iridescent body formed from aluminium sulphate crystals, created by the artists Ackroyd & Harvey.
As we walk through Spellbound we really get to see the shifting topography of meaning-making through the ages. One room, full of books and manuscripts, gives an insight into the ways medieval people tried to understand their world in the absence of science – using tools like demon summoning in a pinch.
Another room is dedicated to the protective magic that people employed to safeguard their homes and loved ones against the influence of dark and evil forces. You peer in on the ways that families tried to protect themselves and their children.
The Spellbound exhibition is an atmospheric uncovering of the myths that linger throughout our culture, and also perhaps a closer look at that which culture and mythology rose to protect us against – the darkness of the unknown, chaos, and confusion.
Spellbound is deeply thought-provoking, succeeding in its aim of prompting us to examine our own systems of belief, and where we might still harbour magical thinking. Spellbound reminds the viewer that we’re actually closer to the magical thinking and superstition of the middle ages than we might like to think. The exhibition gives a really good look at how magic, ritual, and witchcraft has contributed to the ways in which people make meaning, regulate emotion, and form communities. Lastly, Spellbound reminds us that perhaps there is still a rightful place for magic in our lives today.
Spellbound, Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft is at The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until 6 January 2019