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Spellbound – the first review

Muddy hopped on a broomstick for an exclusive tour of The Ashmolean's new exhibition. Conjure up some tickets pronto.

Fancy a dose of creepy freakiness in the run up to Halloween? Get yourself down to Spellbound, the fantastic and fantastical new exhibition at The Ashmolean which opens tomorrow, Friday 31 Aug. Muddy got a sneaky first peek before any other journalists (oh yeah!) and what a mind-blowing, unique and unnerving collection it is.

The show traces the history of magic, from medieval to modern times, in 180 objects; an idea that’s been bubbling around the mind of Ashmo director, Dr Alexander Sturgis, for some time. His alter ego is magician The Great Xa and in 1981 he came joint 3rd in the Young Magician of the Year competition! No, I’m not pulling your leg – check out this YouTube clip to see him swallowing razor blades on The Word. Dr Xa (as his colleagues call him) is fascinated by how we still live in a world of ritual and superstition.

On entering the exhibition space, you have the choice of going under a ladder or not. I didn’t, nor did anyone else while I was there. Well, would you?

Once inside, there’s a whole host of spooky items to gawp at. Apparently, there’s a witch in this bottle (obtained in 1915 by the Pitt Rivers Museum from an old woman in Hove) but no one has dared open it so we’ll never know.

Human heart encased in lead, courtesy of Pitt Rivers

Magic has always been an under-the-radar pastime but back in the Middle Ages everyone dabbled in it, from the lowly peasant to the highest nobleman. Medieval conjuring books used to summon demons are very rare (most have been burnt) but you can eyeball this one with its Seal of Solomon designed to entrap devils and compel them to answer the conjurer’s questions. (Does it work on small children, I wonder?)

Each of the three rooms have contemporary art installations, especially commissioned for the exhibition, to emphasize how we continue to use rituals and superstitions today. This one’s based on the “love lock” phenomenon of engraving lovers’ names on a padlock, locking it to a bridge and throwing the key in the river. I’ve seen a few of these on Parisian bridges over the Seine but they looked especially striking displayed like this.

In the second room, a large house-like structure has been built to demonstrate the common practice of hiding items up chimneys, in walls and under floorboards in order to ward off evil spirits. You can see a mummified cat  and rat (ugh!), bottles, shoes, hats and daggers. Witchcraft was the biggest fear and thousands of objects have been found concealed in homes all over the country and abroad, placed to repel supernatural threats.

The room that focussed on witches was surprisingly moving. Take a look at this chair – known as a witch’s scale, women accused of sorcery were weighed against bibles. Those heavier were deemed innocent, lighter than the gravitas of the scriptures and a nasty fate awaited you.

I really urge you to go and take a look – it’s such an enchanting show and so refreshing to visit an exhibition that’s not based around same old/same old paintings on walls. You may want to think twice about taking small children with you – they may find it a bit too spooky (I can imagine the mummified cat shocking mine), especially if they have overactive imaginations. But if they’re aged 10+ and/or have an appetite for the gruesome, there’s lots here they’ll love. Sleep well tonight, won’t you?

Spellbound is on until 6 January at The Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PH. Tickets cost  £12.25 (£11.25 concessions)

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