A Kind of Magic: Talismans, Charms and Amulets from The British Museum
1 April – 28 June 2003
Exhibition in Gallery 4
Exploring the shadowy area where magic merges with religion, science, medicine and superstition.
A Kind of Magic brings together objects from the collections of The British Museum that are believed to have had supernatural powers which were used to protect or to cure as well as to harm.
The tendency to invest inanimate objects with magical potency is universal. Even in pre-historic times animal-teeth amulets were worn. Powerful objects might have been worn by the living but were also placed in tombs with the dead. Others were used within buildings, on roofs or placed in the foundations. Certain pieces were meant to be conspicuous as if public display assured their power. Other items were used more discretely, hidden about the wearer or even underground, since it was comfort enough just to know these powerful objects were there.
Some items in A Kind of Magic were meant to promote general well-being such as the Chinese good-luck charm or the medieval gemstone thought to cure backache. Others were specifically used at moments of upheaval or great uncertainty: for example, the St Christophers used by travellers, the Aztec obsidian mirror used to exorcise illnesses, Egyptian amulets that ensured safe passage for the dead and various apotropaic devices used during pregnancy, childbirth and infancy. The exhibition also includes depictions of the mythological figures Medusa, Lamashtu, Pazuzu and Sheela-na Gig, nightmare visions that were used to scare away evil forces.
The magical paraphernalia on show at the Henry Moore Institute gave physical shape to fears and anxieties. Belief in their power helped make sense of unknown or inexplicable factors and even compensated for the inadequacies of medical practice. But the idea that inanimate objects can be invigorated is also central to the experience of viewing sculpture. A Kind of Magic demonstrates that inert matter can be transformed primarily through the power of the imagination.
A Kind of Magic concludes the current series of collaborations between The British Museum and the Henry Moore Institute.