Figures of Folk

In this post, we speak to Simon Costin, Director of the Museum of British Folklore, in light of their current exhibition ‘Figures of Folk’ at the London College of Communication.
Image courtesy of Doc Rowe

Image courtesy of Simon Costin

How did the Museum come about in the first instance?

My parents had a copy of the Reader’s Digest’s ‘Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain’, which I used to pore over as a child. It was a huge repository of knowledge and every time we went on holiday in the UK, I would make sure to look up the district we were travelling to in order to see if there was a stone circle, a haunted building, or a seasonal tradition happening.

As I got older, I started to attend more and more of our seasonal customs and events and grew to love their rich strangeness. Folklore and myths offer a means of making sense of the world. They represent a series of lessons that work on both a practical, and a psychological level. They are fundamental to humanity, have always been with us, and we ignore them at our peril.

Quite often over the years, I have tried to find a place where I could learn more about Britain’s rich folk heritage only to discover that we don’t actually have any such institution. This is strange really when we produce so much of it. Over the past fifteen years I’ve become increasingly involved with the customs themselves, not only going to witness them but also taking part when invited to do so. They represent a moment out of time, where the norms of existence are bent or forgotten. While we are rooted in the here and now, they help to put us in touch with our past and help to build community spirit, foster an interest in where we have come from and the things that are important to us. It was with this in mind that I decided to look into opening the UK’s first ever Museum dedicated solely to researching and celebrating our native customs and traditions.

Image courtesy of Doc Rowe

Image courtesy of Doc Rowe

In 2008 I was moaning to my friend Hilary Williams, who was then the director of the Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft. I was despondent that in a country so rich with folklore, there is no one place that you can visit to learn more about our folk heritage and culture. It was she who suggested that I took the idea out into the wider world to see if I was alone in my interest, or if there may be others who shared my passion. So in 2009 I bought a small caravan on eBay and gutted the interior, fitting it with display cases and objects of folkloric interest. I then put together a launch party with friends to raise the money to go on tour. You can read more about the launch here.

It was all a huge success and so I took to the road spending six months touring the UK, from the Isle of Skye to Cornwall. The caravan proved a hit where ever it went and I was met with the same question time and time again, ‘Why don’t we have anything like this?’

What does it aim to do and how does it do this?

Folklore can be seen as being a body of expressive culture, traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practice that is disseminated largely through oral communication and behavioural example. It comes under the heading ‘intangible heritage’ due to it’s nature and having been deemed to be ‘low culture’ for so long. Many unlikely things could be thought of as folklore or folk culture, such as urban legends, children’s rhymes, conspiracy theories, UFO abduction reports, graffiti and roadside memorial tributes for example. It is a hard thing to pin down and no one description will suffice. Most often people might think of folklore as something that is simply ‘old’, ‘rural’ or ‘dying out’. In fact folklore, while it connects people with their past, is also being created on a daily basis and is a great cultural signifier. It is vital our native heritage is researched and maintained for future generations. I see the museum as filling a yawning gap within the cultural landscape of this country, and as a means for people from all walks of life to gain knowledge, and a deeper understanding, of our unique folk culture.

Image courtesy Doc Rowe

Image courtesy of Austin Capery

Could you tell us about the exhibition at the London College of Communication?

Due to the lack of material culture generated by folk customs and seasonal events, we have been looking at different ways to communicate ideas. One of the things we started to look at was how best to represent the Morris dance within the museum. A room full of photographs of Morris dancers may be of interest to the dancers themselves but possibly not to the wider public. We are also keen to involve the various practitioners in creating museum content, so the idea came about to send out a blank figure, for each team to dress as a representation of their side. The Morris Folk project came about and to date 293 figures have been sent out with more requests coming in each week. Last year LCC invited us to submit an idea for an exhibition and so, wanting to highlight the Morris Folk project, we suggested that the first ten figures to be returned to us were photographed, along with ten Jig Dolls from our collection, being another representation of a dancing figure. These figures can be anything from a few centimetres in height up to forty centimetres. Usually made in wood, they differ from a traditional doll in that all of the joints are made to move. A rod extends from the back of the figure so that it can be held over a thin board, which is then sat on by the performer who strikes the board rhythmically, whilst ‘jigging’ the figure in tune with music. The figure itself almost becomes a percussive instrument when used with skill.

Figures of Folk continues until 30 April at the London College of Communication. Click here for more information

All images courtesy of Doc Rowe

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  1. Diana Terry

    I Hope you came to Saddleworth in the Pennines and saw the annual rushcart event. It’s the largest item in the English Morris calendar with 100s of dancers and more spectators. Last year was 40 year anniversary of its revival by Peter Ashworth.

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