London: “Art and Spirit” @ the College of Psychic Studies

And so we happily come to October, best of months, in which all I want to do is breathe, eat, read, watch, and sleep Halloween (to be honest, I do that for most of the rest of the year too, but especially in October). Because I like to try to do Halloween related posts for as much of October as I can, and because appropriately spooky things rarely come my way in London, I’ve been hanging on to this one since August. So you will no longer be able to visit “Art and Spirit: Visions of Wonder,” as it only ran for one week in August, but how about I give you my thoughts on it anyway? (Rhetorical question, you’re getting my thoughts whether you like it or not.)

  

The first thing you need to know about me, if you’ve never read my blog before (hi!), is that as much as I would love to believe in ghosts, I am at heart a cold hard skeptic, and these people had no chance on selling me on any concept of an afterlife. So I was relieved that the exhibition was free, because I really did not want to give the College of Psychic Studies money (or any sort of religious organisation money, for that matter). The place was exactly what I was expecting (maybe I’m psychic?) – a big rambling terraced house in South Kensington that the College had presumably financed back in the late 19th/early 20th century during the Spiritualism craze when they were rolling in the dough. The College is open to the public for classes and things (that you have to pay for, of course), but I think the summer exhibition is the only time the whole building is open to the public, and it was hard to tell if they had actually put together an exhibition specially, or if this is the stuff that is always in here.

  

In all fairness, the people working there were very friendly, albeit a bit earnest. The same was true of most of our fellow visitors, who seemed to really believe in this stuff (a couple were questioning why you don’t get spirits on photographs anymore, and talking about how “powerful” all the images were), and I guess good for you if you’re able to embrace your spiritual side, but I am a terrible person, and earnestness makes me uncomfortable (I don’t really have a problem with people believing what they want to believe as long as they’re not pushing it on me or hurting anyone, but I do take issue with psychics and other people who exploit people’s vulnerability for financial gain, and it seems like there’s a lot of supposed “psychics” connected to this college). The people working there also seemed a little confused on whether we could take pictures – two different people told us it was fine, but then we spotted small signs in some of the rooms telling us not to take pictures. So I do have some photos, but not in places where we noticed a sign, so hopefully there won’t be an issue with posting these.

  

So as I’ve said, basically the entire building was open, and you could wander in all of the rooms, but some of them had barely anything in them which made me think that this is the way it normally looks. But the building was huge, and there was lots to see (lots of stairs too, though I think they had a lift). I would say the best bits by far were the spirit photography (as seen above), and the spirit paintings (as seen at the start of the post), which were just naive art, but done by people who claimed to have their hands guided by spirits (I had to laugh at the captions that basically said, “This person never drew before in their lives, and then they produced these [very primitive] paintings, so that’s proof that they must have been guided by a spirit.”).

 

There was sort of a shrine room to Arthur Conan Doyle, who was one of the College’s presidents, which was a bit odd, and then various supposedly haunted furniture, which in theory I love the sound of, but oh man, did they take it seriously. I was also cracking up at how they tried to dismiss the debunking of a seance that featured spirit writing by saying that the people who did the debunking weren’t properly familiar with how seances worked, so they didn’t understand that the writing on the board could occur at any time, even before the seance had begun (and not because the psychic had put it there themselves, of course). It was just all a bit too credulous for me. Still, I was interested to learn more about all the devices used in seances, and about the history of the Rider-Waite Tarot cards, since I do dabble in tarot (just for fun, not for serious).

I’m sure I just sound like I’m taking the piss, but I do think this was an interesting experience – if it hadn’t been a serious exhibition, but had been something more in the vein of the Harry Potter exhibition at the BL or even the Witchcraft Museum (who don’t seem to take themselves quite so seriously), I would have been really into it. As it was, I was just a little too weirded out by the earnestness to fully enjoy myself (I was sort of worried someone was going to try to convert us to spiritualism, though nothing like that happened. I know I said I didn’t want to give them money, but if they’d had that “Spirit Intercourse” poster for sale, I’d have bought it in a second). It was certainly a very unique experience, and perfect for this time of year (though I had no problem getting into the spirit in August, so to speak), and worth checking out if they open again next summer, but I certainly don’t think I’ll be joining the College any time soon. 2.5/5.

 

 

4 comments

  1. I’m with you all the way with scepticism. It all seems fascinating and really interesting but true? I don’t think so. All good fun as long as everyone realises it’s to be taken tongue in cheek. Some people are full on believers though aren’t they?

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