2017 Exhibition Poppets, pins and power: the Craft of Cursing

Our 2017 exhibition is a re-examination of the poppets in the Museum’s collection based on the research carried out by Dr Louise Fenton of the University of Wolverhampton.

Here’s the introductory panel:

“Fear? Bemusement? Curiosity? How do you react to the idea of cursing? The objects in this exhibition have proven to be the most controversial of all the Museums’ collections.  Whether you believe in the power of magic or not, many visitors have experienced mixed emotions when considering these dolls which have been mutilated, pricked or burnt. Images of the human body that have been used in this way, whether made of clay, wax, string or even a Barbie doll, can resonate deeply within us.  This emotional charge is for some the very essence of magic-making.

What is a curse?

 A curse can be defined as a spell intended to bring misfortune, illness, harm or even death to a victim.

The most common form of cursing is with a figure or effigy that represents the victim. Wax effigies have been found in ancient times including India, Egypt, Africa and Europe. These effigies can also be made from clay, wood or cloth and in more recent times include photographs, bought dolls and ‘collected’ items of clothing. Historically many of these effigies were burned and so did not survive.  The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic has on display here a unique collection of mainly 20th century European dolls – proof that witchcraft still goes on today!

Who curses people, and why?

 As you will see by looking at these objects and reading their histories, the people who used cursing poppets often led seemingly conventional lives:  suburban husbands and wives, middle class families.  Others lived through more extreme circumstances such as colonial conflicts. Would these people have seen themselves as witches or doing witchcraft?  Whatever their views it is clear that they were drawing upon ancient magical ideas and tailoring them to their own specific circumstances.

The curses were made for a variety of reasons. A sense of being wronged and a desire for justice is at the heart of cursing magic, although some would argue that this never justifies causing harm to another living being. For some magical practitioners the very idea of cursing is inexcusable.

Although these dolls or poppets can be used for revenge, many similar looking objects were actually created with the intention to heal and protect. The intention of the maker and the purpose of the poppet is everything.

Research at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

The curator of this exhibition, Dr Louise Fenton of the University of Wolverhampton, began researching these cursing poppets in 2010. This exhibition draws together the curses within the collection and lays out the stories and context behind many of them. Following extensive archival research at the Museum and working with the Museum team, Dr Fenton has been able to piece together and uncover some of the histories and scandals that surround them. Some of these objects have not been displayed for many years.

Cecil Williamson’s Collection

 The majority of objects were collected by the founder of the Museum, Cecil Williamson.  Many of them were acquired around the time the Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951. This meant that witchcraft was no longer a crime in Britain, and this may have encouraged people to part with their magical material rather than hide it away. Despite the change in the law, Williamson was still very keen to protect his sources from unwanted media attention, and to do this it seems that he developed his own code. When an object was identified as originating from EXETER (in capital letters) or EXMOUTH, Dr Fenton suggests that this may have been a way of obscuring the actual location. The same has occurred with dates too: see the Bavarian Doll in the exhibition. Throughout the exhibition there is a selection of original object description cards that indicate Williamson’s methods:  these are type-written on cream backgrounds.  In addition, descriptions provided by Graham King (the Director of the Museum from 1996 – 2014) are also provided in some places: these are white panels with black sans-serif fonts.

Exhibition layout

The exhibition is in sections,

  1. dolls from around the world showing the variety of uses today
  2. wax and clay figures, including a tale of a scandalous affair
  3. images from the Richel Collection (illustrating the practice of an individual or group of magicians from the Netherlands)
  4. dolls in popular culture showing the cinematic representations of curses
  5. creature curses
  6. the Bavarian Doll, a poppet with a story to tell
  7. dolls, showing the cruelty that can be intended
  8. photographic curses
  9. objects that have been found and collected including a death curse.

These displays include Dr Fenton’s research notes, context and original descriptions.”