Museums of Witchcraft

Enlarge picture
Gerald Gardner in front of the Witches' Mill, Castletown, Isle of Man. Courtesy Raymond Buckland.

Museums of Witchcraft

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

In 1949 Cecil Williamson opened his first Witchcraft exhibition at his Witchcraft Research Centre, housed in the old Witches' Mill on Arbory Street, Castletown, Isle of Man. He had tried to open it in Stratford-upon-Avon, but when the local press broke the story that it would be a Witchcraft museum the locals brought pressure to bear to drive him out of town, so he moved to the Isle of Man. The buildings in which Williamson housed his collection—an old stone-built mill and barns—dated from 1611. In the nineteenth century, after a fire burned out the insides of the mill, the structure was used for the meetings of the Arbory Witches, a local coven. In 1952, after three years on the island, Williamson returned to England, taking all his artifacts with him. He went to Windsor and bought a building known as the Old Drill Hall and an old public house known as "The Goswells." There he reopened his museum of Witchcraft and magic. After a couple of years there he moved yet again to Boughtonon-the-Water, where he had a number of problems with Christians who called the museum "Satan's House" and tried to drive him out. Local newspaper headlines proclaimed, "Witchcraft Back in the Midlands," "Black Magic Grips Village," and "Witchcraft Exhibit Not Likely to Stay." After a fire burned out a whole section of the museum, he returned to Boscastle in 1960 and reopened the museum there.

The Boscastle Museum was open from April through September, exhibiting items once owned and used by people like Aleister Crowley. One of his more unusual exhibits was the mortal remains of Ursula Kemp, the famous witch of St. Osyth, who was executed on February 18, 1582. In 1992, Williamson retired and sold the Boscastle Witchcraft Museum to Graham King and Elizabeth Crow. The museum is still open in Boscastle and is very popular.

Perhaps the best known museum of witchcraft was that run by Gerald

Gardner, at the old Witches' Mill on the Isle of Man, taking over in 1952 after the one founded by Cecil Williamson. Gardner had originally visited Williamson and been forced to stay for twelve weeks, before a dispute over his family money was settled. From the first, Gardner was keen to own the Isle of Man property. When Williamson moved back to England, Gardner bought the property. There he established a museum with his impressive collection of religio-magical artifacts, collected over a lifetime of traveling in various parts of the world. He also had a selection of items from Witches with whom he was personally involved.

The museum became well known mainly because of the notoriety of Gardner himself. As the unofficial spokesman for modern Witchcraft and the author of the first books written by a practicing Witch, he was always in the public eye, which left him open to attacks similar to those Williamson had suffered. His museum had exhibits on Witchcraft, sorcery, ceremonial magic, astrology, talismans, amulets, divination, alchemy, necromancy, devil worship, and the black mass. It exhibited items that had belonged to Aleister Crowley and to the Order of the Golden Dawn, to Sir Francis Dashwood and his Hellfire Club, as well as ancient Egyptian items, and religio-magical items from around the world.

On Gardner's death in 1964, the museum was left to his high priestess, Lady Olwen (Monique Wilson). She and her husband ran it for a short time but eventually sold it to Ripley's in America. It was exhibited for a time on Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, and at Gatlinburg, Tennessee. At the Fisherman's Wharf site the collection was enhanced by a variety of tableaux, dioramas, and manikins, together with a free magic show given by a resident magician (stage conjuror).

Gardner's collection inspired his protégé Raymond Buckland to start collecting, and in 1966 he opened his own Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, in Brentwood, Long Island, New York. It was originally housed in the basement of his home and available by appointment to individuals and groups such as senior citizens and boy scouts. Later it was moved to its own building in nearby Bay Shore, where it stayed until 1975. It was very successful and was the subject of an hour-long television documentary and various newspaper and magazine articles. From Bay Shore the museum moved with Buckland to Weirs Beach, New Hampshire. When Buckland relocated to Virginia in 1979, it was closed and remained in storage for many years.

For a number of years in the 1990s, several people made unsuccessful attempts to purchase the museum collection. Then, in 1999, Monte Plaisance, of Houma, Louisiana, bought the collection, with Raymond Buckland staying on the board as consultant. It retained its name of "The Buckland Museum of Witchcraft and Magic," opened for a trial period in Houma in 2000 and was displayed in part at the WitchFest 2000 gathering at the University of New Orleans. It seemed probable that the collection would find a new permanent home in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 2001. Like Gardner's collection, it exhibits a wide range of artifacts, including items from Aleister Crowley, Sybil Leek, Gerald Gardner, and other notables, as well as many contemporary Wiccan tools and objects.