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‘Nucleus of a Folklore Museum: folklore, material culture and a museum that never existed’

The Museum attended a fascinating talk given by the Assistant Curator of MERL (Museum of English Rural Life), Dr. Ollie Douglas, on 10th May. Presented as part of his PhD thesis, the paper was an interesting account of the attempts of the Folklore Society to establish a Museum of Folklore, during the latter part of the 19th Century.

Dr. Douglas contextualised this endeavour with parallel developments within the fields of Anthropology and Museology at that time, and examined how these disciplines informed and influenced their attempts.

Using the central idea of the importance of material culture to the Folklore Society’s vision of a museum, he suggested that perhaps this fixation was ultimately a contributory factor in their unsuccessful project.

The seminar also highlighted Dr. Douglas’ belief that public enthusiasm for folklore is best served by creating a participatory experience, celebrating folklore as a primarily intangible artform. However, the range and extraordinary nature of the objects he presented (albeit in photographs) demonstrated the enormous variety and idiosyncrasies of the artefacts associated with folkloric practice – including: witches ladders (made from cord interwoven with feathers and used as a spell), ‘dream stockings’ (put one under the pillow and you will dream of your future husband), A Strawboy’s mask from County Mayo (worn by a group of boys who would visit the wedding home after the marriage ceremony and dance with the women of the house, whilst dressed in tall, conical straw masks) and variations in regional cakes. (The Folklore Society gathered together examples of cakes from all over the British Isles for an exhibition in 1891).

As a 21st century cultural venture, The Museum of British Folklore will build an important collection of artefacts, alongside offering ample opportunity for public engagement– be it in the form of either material or ephemeral expression. This multi-disciplinary approach aims to demonstrate the richness of folk practice as both part of our heritage and as a continuing, living tradition.