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Magic at the museum

22 January 2014 by Zachary

Piece of stone

Irish type stone axe head (or ‘celt’) found in Parliament Fields, Toxteth Park, in 1866. This is probably the stone axe used to cure the Irish lad mentioned in the 1897 report.

World Museum is currently hosting the ‘Magic Worlds’ exhibition. It’s a fun and child-centred look at the miraculous, fantastical, illusional and folkloric – including everything from magicians to fairytales. The exhibition got me thinking about the role that ‘magic’ has played in the museum collection that I curate – the African collection. It’s true to say that there is a darker side to the long relationship that museums have had with all things ‘magical’. 

The French philosopher J. P. Sartre considered the fantastic and the miraculous to have a history in religion and myth where it served to express mystical leaps into the spiritual realm. Christian societies in Europe have long defined themselves in relation to societies they found themselves in opposition to, which they characterised as ‘heathen’.

The spiritual beliefs and practices of ‘heathen’ societies were interpreted negatively in the context of Christian ideas about heresy, witchcraft and magic. In the 19th century, museums exhibited artefacts collected from different cultures and ‘races’ around the world in pseudo-scientific displays to illustrate their level of development and to rank them on a universal scale in relation to other cultures.

Christian European cultures were considered to be the most highly evolved, while ‘heathen’ African societies were classified as being among the least evolved. Museums applied misleading European terms, like ‘idol’ and ‘fetish’, to all sorts of African objects, from amulets to ancestral shrine figures, which they interpreted as representing the most ‘primitive’ and ‘irrational’ forms of religious practice.

The pseudo-scientific ranking of races and cultures on a universal scale was soon to be  contradicted by the appearance of sophisticated cultural artefacts collected by European ethnographers from societies like the Kuba in the heart of central Africa.

This ranking also came into question because Europeans had cultural practices that could fall into these ‘primitive’ and ‘irrational’ categories as well.

I came across an interesting example of this in our museum archives, reported in the ‘Bulletin of the Liverpool Museums’, published in August 1897.  Under the title ‘ ‘Medicine’ at the Museums’, the director of the then ‘Mayer Museum’ recorded the first known performance of magic at the museum:

“It may not be without interest, from a Folk-lore point of view, to place on record that but a few days ago, an Irish lad suffering badly from scrofulous sores, was brought to the Mayer Museum by his parents, who earnestly besought the authorities that they might be allowed to touch the child’s neck with an Irish Stone Celt, exhibited in one of the cases.

It was unavailing to try and persuade the deluded and superstitious couple, that no possible good could follow such an application. As their faith in the efficacy of the Stone could not be shaken, and they were loth to go away without being allowed to try this, in their belief, unfailing remedy, opposition was finally, and not without some hesitation, withdrawn, and the ancient implement placed in their hands.

After the operation the parents departed happy, grateful, and in the most perfect confidence that their child would be healed, and not without expression of surprise that so great a boon had been conferred on them without the fee, which they were prepared, and that very gladly, to pay.”

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