A Private View of Do You Believe In Magic? at Bristol Museum 22/10/19 by Sheer Zed.

Magic is a vast and wide open endless tract of human experience. To take a cup of the sea and call it the ocean would simply not be true or indeed pertinent to do so. Do You Believe In Magic? at Bristol Museum is an exhibition where there is much to admire and praise but also some elements to criticize. My evening began however at one of the best kept secrets in Bristol, the wonderful Brisnoodles.com. Here I sampled their fantastic Jasmine Tea and exquisite and generous Mixed Seafood Hot and Sour Noodle Soup, which is very likely one of the finest and excellent bowls of noodle soup I’ve had in recent memory. Do you believe in magic? I do. Indeed, my evening got off to the very best of starts and what I would say was the highlight for me after joining the queue outside at the very same time meeting with the one and only Adrian Nooke, counselor, healer, Druid and member of The Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD). From the very beginning I warmed to Adrian’s open-hearted, wise, approachable and friendly aura. He told me that he was one of the exhibitors at the exhibition and then introduced me to his lovely partner. Both of them exuded an intense, bright, funny, self-effacing but rich energy that was both enchanting and very charismatic. I was to meet Adrian once again inside the exhibition, where he kindly talked to me at length about his practice and pathway.

As I mentioned earlier it is extremely difficult to fully do justice to a subject that is oceanic and vast. Bristol Museum make a fascinating and outstanding stab at this subject but I do have some small reservations. The use of digital interfaces, actual physical exhibits and text are put together in a series of sometimes tight and circular spaces. Personally I would have liked more room and light to be able to lose myself, as one could with say an art space. The museum’s Leonardo da Vinci drawings exhibition was superbly put together, where the drawings were given plenty of space to exist within. With over two hundred exhibits this particular exhibition feels a touch crushed but like a shop of curiosities it has much to dwell upon. There are some omissions and the odd embarrassing typo (eclectic is not spelt “ecletic”). Difficult as this may seem it must be said that there are many important figures within the subject of magic that really needed to be addressed. They are not here. The exhibition in it’s website description states; “From ancient uses of witchcraft, to belief in the power of gods and ancestors, this exhibition explores the complex intersection between magic, science and religion.” Fair enough. In an interactive digital interface screen you are encouraged to place a dot onto where you feel your personal placement is in terms of the circles of magic, science and region. I placed myself firmly at the balanced centre though my true sensibilities of sound, art and shamanism is where my heart ultimately beats.

There is however much to enjoy here. Julian Vayne speaks about his experiences on a flat screen, a cupboard of magical herbs invites the visitor to open the drawers and have a smell, gorgeous artwork from various tribes hang on the walls and inside glass cases with plenty of textual information to read and absorb. However, magic ultimately is about people. Meeting Adrian Nooke once again inside next to his enigmatic video exhibit was a wonderful experience. Adrian spoke to me directly outside and beyond the video about the meaningful and resonant images that were emblazoned upon his shamanic drum, his love and reverence for the planet (which I wholeheartedly share), and his practice of visiting a local stone circle at full moons and sunrises, singing incantations and raising spirit. Presentations (or if you will projections), irrespective of how well and detailed they are created, are not people and they can never be. People are far richer, have much more depth, nuance and energy. They give so much more than say a video or picture or artifact could ever do. Once the video of Adrian had finished it became apparent that the curtains which the video was being projected onto covered a doorway from which another area could be accessed. Some exhibition workers came through carrying a box of items. “It looks like there’s a doorway hidden behind me.” said Adrian. I took this statement to mean something beyond its initial mundane meaning. We are indeed all doorways to other realms. Magick or indeed magic is a term which derives from the Old Persian magu, a word that applied to a form of religious functionary about which little is known. During the late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE, this term was adopted into Ancient Greek, where it was used with negative connotations. The historian Owen Davies stated that the word magic was “beyond simple definition” and had “a range of meanings”. I concur to this statement. It changes and shifts at every twist and turn it meets.

Which brings me to a small criticism that I feel needs to be addressed. During the lead up to this exhibition the museum posted an open call to the public for submissions of photographs of magical objects including a short description of that object. I emailed to the museum my photograph and the story commentary surrounding it of a Phra Ngang Bucha, a magical statue with spiritually active elements. They replied stating that they would use my story in the exhibition but not the photograph that accompanied the story. Phra Ngang is an animist nature deity or indeed demon that is said to reside on a mountain. The statue is made by one of the finest of Thai Lanna Buddhist practitioners Ajarn Suea. My description on the plaque in the museum relates directly to a specific photograph and not the one on display. Phra Ngang for me is an object of veneration. The statue (or Bucha) was acquired directly from Ajarn Suea himself during one of my pilgrimages to Thailand. I have included my own personal photograph of the original image that I sent in to the museum within this blog, so that Phra Ngang, one of the deities I worship and respect daily, can be correctly beheld and admired in his true and beautiful glory. You may think this criticism is somewhat a little bit pedantic. For me it is not. Phra Ngang represents a real and living presence in my life and it is a symbol of growth, life-force and personal evolution. Carl Jung (though crediting it to Lucien Lévy-Bruhl) called this identifying and merging unity with an object Participation Mystique. For more information on this fascinating deity I strongly recommend The Thai Occult by Peter Jenx, which can be purchased on PDF format only via his website.

The devil as they say is in the details. A section dedicated to tarot incorrectly had an open pack placed inside a plastic holder with a book on tarot divination and its meanings next to a glued down crystal ball. Sitting down at the table a fellow visitor concurred with me that a tarot deck should never be used by anyone except the person that it belongs to. On handling the pack I felt that the pack was a bit stiff, difficult to work with and had what I would call a chaotic feeling around it. Readings of tarot can only be accurately made if the connection between the medium (the tarot cards) and the tarot card reader/owner is unbroken and within close proximity of its owners energy, integrity and spirit. Magical objects such as wands, cards, statues or instruments of any kind whatsoever can only be effective if the person that owns and is deeply connected with it is allowed to wield it. As I sat at the tarot table some folk approached me and asked questions about my Khun Paen amulet which is made by Ajarn Apichai. For one brief moment I felt as though I had submerged and become a part of the exhibition, which came alongside flashbacks of my time at The London Dungeon as a Warder and my brief time working in the slides department at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Quibbles and criticisms aside the exhibition is a very worthy and enjoyable day out. You will need more than the two hours I was allocated to fully absorb all that is within this exhibition. One of the museum workers described to me how one of the exhibits, an ornate and stunning grass and hay shamanic body costume, flaked a shred of its composition each time it was moved until finally it was positioned under a large glass display cabinet. A lot of time, effort and resources have been employed here. As to the carbon neutrality of this exhibition I really cannot say how wide the footprint of this event truly is. There is no mention at all of black or dark magickal processes, such as lets just say Crowleyan ritualistic cat killing (however there is a “dried out cat” in the exhibition to marvel at on loan from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic), Santeria, Voodoo, Judaism chicken sacrifices or Aztec human heart sacrifices. I for one would not wish to see this though I am clearly and highly aware of their place in human magical history. Out of light comes darkness, out of darkness comes light. In a nudge wink moment to the visitor the smartphone is mentioned as a magical device though there is no mention of the suffering of the children enslaved to obtain the tightly controlled conflict minerals that run these pieces of modern technology. Refreshingly there are no Harry Potter, Twilight, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Hobbit or Lord of the Rings references that were apparent to me despite my mixed personal feelings for these cherished literary fantasy franchises. Do You Believe In Magic? runs at Bristol Museum from 19th October 2019 to 19th April 2020. This exhibition is open to everyone but most suited to people aged 14+ though during the private view I did see children with their parents well under this age.

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