Recent Spellbound Exhibition at the Ashmolean

By Marie-Claire Gully-Hart at

Stepping out of the Ashmolean’s Spellbound exhibition spanning eight centuries of magic and witchcraft, onto our ancient medieval streets, blending the world they knew with ours, I hoped to take some magic with me.

It might have pleased the many innocent ‘witches’, whose plight moved us all, to be enshrined amongst the beautiful objects of their time: talismans and charms, crystal balls, amulets, rings to bind love, spell books, or the more spooky, such as a pierced rag doll or a human heart in lead. Such was superstition during the Middle Ages, that people sought protection from evil spells with horseshoes, ‘witch bottles’ and strange objects hidden in walls.

The widely held belief in magic and witchcraft helped people cope with the unpredictability and harshness of their lives. Witches were believed to have supernatural powers, heal the sick and act as midwives. However, they were liable to be blamed for colluding with the Devil if anything went wrong: a death, a crop failing, bad weather, or even community rivalries. 80% of so-called witches were women, often older, who were scapegoated.

Witch trials came in waves in England and Scotland, and a series of witchcraft acts between 1542 and 1735 led to cruel witch hunts. The Church governed people, laws and rules of the land: it also kept communities together. However, the bigotry of the age led to non-Christians and witches being persecuted as heretics and burnt at the stake.
Many of the exhibition’s artefacts and illustrations depicted the Zodiac; Astrology was a big part of people’s lives.

From the 3rd millennium BC it was a well-established science, on a par with Astronomy, and inspired an agricultural calendar for sowing crops and harvesting. It was also used in medicine to determine the best time for surgical interventions, such as bleeding which was popular at that time, and when medicinal plants and herbs should be picked to be most effective.

Astrologers would advise on favourable times to act, predicted natural disasters and prescribed remedies. John Dee, who advised Elizabeth I, was a famous astrologer, astronomer and mathematician. On display was a beautiful purple crystal ball he acquired in 1582.

By the 18th century, with the Age of Enlightenment, came scientific rationalism. Astrology lost its scientific status, and religion and traditional authority were overthrown in favour of free speech and thought. Witchcraft was put down to superstition and the final witchcraft act of 1735 turned all previous ones on their heads.

To claim to have magical powers or believe in witchcraft was now a crime of fraud. This act was in use until 1951 and meant that spiritualists, healers and astrologers were forbidden from practising and were liable to prosecution. Hence spirituality and all things magical were stamped out.

As early as 1924, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famous for writing Sherlock Holmes and a prolific writer on spiritualism, warned of the dangers of descending into materialism and a utilitarian and selfish view of the world; as the author Gregg Easterbrook put it, “In the West spiritual poverty has replaced material poverty as the leading want of our age.”

Excessive consumerism of goods often produced by slave or child labour, buying for instant gratification, using non-renewable resources, and even the technology we have at our fingertips, fail to provide meaningful ways of relating, and mental health problems are on the rise.

With widespread scepticism undermining institutionalised religions there is a growing trend to find ‘religious experience’ and fulfilment in alternative ways or through meditation, art or contact with nature. Perhaps the ‘wheel of witchcraft’ has turned full circle.

ASHMOLEAN Open 7 days a week.

The Ashmolean is delighted to announce that it will open to the public seven days a week from 1 February 2019. The Museum will no longer be closed to the public on Mondays, bringing the Ashmolean’s opening hours into line with other national museums and allowing more visitors to access the world-renowned collections and temporary exhibitions.

From 1 February 2019 people will also be welcomed through a renovated main entrance which will include a new revolving door and improved accessible doors.
Dr Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean, said “Being open and accessible is absolutely key to the Ashmolean’s mission so the extension of our opening hours and improvements to the main entrance are vital. It is especially good news that we can announce seven-day opening for the tenth anniversary of the Ashmolean’s major redevelopment in 2009.”

The renovation of the main entrance will take place between 19 November 2018 and 31 January 2019. During this period visitors will still be able to access the Museum from the Beaumont Street forecourt via a temporary entrance which will open into the Egypt wing. The new door and Monday openings will be in place for the landmark exhibition, JEFF KOONS AT THE ASHMOLEAN (7 February–9 June 2019).