From Pennsylvania to Cornwall: A history student from America interning at the museum
We have been really privileged to have Stephany Flynn, an American student with us at the Museum for the past few weeks. Here she writes about her experiences.
Following many months of paperwork, preparation, and planning, back in April, I finally got the green light on coming over to complete an internship! One of the big requirements for my university’s MA in public history curriculum is to participate in an internship experience at a site related to our coursework. Now, when I first began thinking about where I could be placed, I thought I’d be somewhere local, a small historical society or a historical site, like many of my classmates were also anticipating. Yet, it was by chance that everything changed for me last summer at the suggestion of my professor and former academic advisor (and mentor, whom I am greatly thankful for and indebted to!), while we were on a study abroad trip to many ancient magical sites in southern England. While we were in Boscastle, with me in mind, and having known some of the staff, she graciously inquired at that time if the museum would want to have an intern for the following summer. And from there, I suppose it’s history! I arrived about a month ago, at the beginning of June, and it’s unbelievable how much I’ve learned from everyone! After just a few weeks, I feel like I know so much of the museum’s history, mainly from the help of the immense archive of Cecil’s old museum display labels that I had been cataloguing.
When I got to Boscastle, I honestly didn’t know what to expect! I came here with very little background knowledge of magic and witchcraft; the only historical research I’d done on the topic was limited to the early modern period and persecution. So in order for me to get more acquainted with the collection, and learn a lot of valuable skills in the process, I began cataloguing the interpretation panels in the Cecil Williamson Object Label Collection. These labels were once posted up in the various different locations of his witchcraft museums, from the Isle of Man, to Bourton-on-the-Water, and eventually ending up in Boscastle. The breadth of material within the entire collection spans from the public display labels, to many drafts and earlier versions that had been edited by Cecil, and also his personal, handwritten notes; it’s a very extensive collection which is quite amazing in its own right.
From the start, I dove into Cecil’s world of magic. The first card I read described the use of snakes and snake oil by local witches in the South West, and I slowly began to realize how many tools and materials potentially have magical properties. I knew right from day one I was going to be in for quite an adventure reading and cataloging these display cards. Cecil’s words offered not only a look into various magical practices and traditions, but he also offered tons of humour and deep insight into how he regarded his collection and the museum. While reading through the display labels, the vivid descriptions allowed me to match up many of the panels to his original objects, which was one of the most rewarding experiences for me while archiving the object label collection.
Often, there was no shortage of information left by Cecil on where a particular object came from. I was able to glean from these documents previous owners and the places where certain items and tools came from. Oftentimes, he even described the ways in which various tools were used in their owners’ crafts. All of this is adding a deeper level of understanding back in for the objects from Cecil’s collection, and is also uncovering the individual histories of these magical tools, charms, and their owners. Coming at this all with training and a background in history, it’s unbelievable to me what a unique and wonderful experience this has been. I truly feel like all of these display cards have allowed me to see the museum as Cecil did, and to step back in time into the histories of the objects from his collection. To know where these objects came from and the stories of their past owners has been an endless source of fascination for me.
After doing tons and tons of document entries, one in particular really stands out and exemplifies the many benefits this experience has offered. Perhaps one of the most well-known and recognizable objects in the collection is the two-headed pig. As can be discerned from what Cecil wrote about this pig, so much more information can be gathered on it than one may have imagined:
“There is a widespread and age old belief, among country-living people that any freak of nature is something special, that is it a sign to be taken notice of, not highly to be disregarded, that the spirit world is drawing attention to and making itself felt. Here we have a two headed pig. Pigs have always been considered to be an animal blessed with luck, hence the gambler’s reason for carrying a lucky pig charm. Also the reason for lucky pig children’s money boxes. There is a vast folklore built-up around pig good luck symbolism so if a pig is lucky – Waugh! Then a two headed pig must be really something – and it is.. This little fellow must have been worth its weight in silver to the wise woman who was shrewd and quick enough to get and preserve it. It has been passed on down from one charmer to another. The last in the chain being a Mrs Ethel Cannon. Lovingly nick-named Bang-Bang of Witchurch.”
To rediscover and relearn the forgotten pasts of the objects at the museum has been immensely worthwhile for me, an aspiring archivist and historian in-training. I’ve learned names of people who were connected to many ubiquitous objects at the museum, where they came from, and often what made them special. While cataloguing the display labels and pairing them up with objects, we have also been taking time to include all the information in both collection entries on the online catalogue. In many cases, the museum objects should contain Cecil’s original information, and anything else that was learned about the objects over time, while the document entries of each display card should direct users to their corresponding object entries. It’s been a long process, but it is of immense benefit for future visitors, enthusiasts, and researchers to the museum or library to see such accessible and connected information. Furthermore, there seems to be potentially limitless possibilities for greater research beginning with Cecil’s documentation of magical practices and traditions in the South West counties. To step back from the work I’ve done so far, shows me how invaluable my time here has been thus far, both in terms of me personally gaining career skills, but by also hopefully leaving a lasting impact in the growing archive at the museum.
Thank-you Stephany for all you’ve done and are doing (two more weeks left!)