folklore

London: Ritual Britain @ the Crypt Gallery

I went to see the “Ritual Britain” exhibition, a collaboration between artist Ben Edge and the Museum of British Folklore, at the Crypt in Euston a few weeks ago, and though the exhibition ended on the 4th of July, I still wanted to post about it so people who didn’t get the chance to go can at least see some photos and read about what it was like.

I’m interested in folklore generally, maybe because America hasn’t really been around long enough to have developed folk traditions in the way they exist in Europe (though I guess we have urban legends that are gradually becoming folklore – it’s been a while since I’ve read Ghostland, but I seem to recall Colin Dickey addressing this very subject more extensively than I can do here), so I’m trying to fill the void with other countries’ traditions. Given all the super weird and highly regional British customs and practices (straw bears, Burry Men, cheese rolling, shin kicking, etc), I think it’s a bit odd that there isn’t a permanent folklore museum here, since I’ve certainly been to ones in other European countries, though maybe it has something to do with the legacy of imperialism and some British traditions being a bit controversial (burning Catholics in effigy springs immediately to mind). At any rate, the Museum of British Folklore normally only exists online, with occasional temporary exhibitions hosted in various galleries and museums around the UK. This was the first one I’d heard of taking place in London, so I was excited to attend.

The exhibition was free and there no pre-booking required, which is a bit novel in itself these days, but I was worried that it would get crowded on the weekends, so I took a Friday off to go (I mean, it wasn’t just for this. I also wanted to hit Borough Market, because it’s too busy on weekends and I never get to go anymore since I changed jobs and thus my working days last November, and I had to use the leave up soon anyway), and there was only a handful of people inside, so this was obviously a good plan. I’d been to St. Pancras Old Church (my computer wants me to change Pancras to pancreas so badly) before to see their awesome tombstone tree, but never St. Pancras New Church (which was built in 1819, so isn’t really that new anymore), and the Crypt is an awesome and creepy venue, as you can see from the photo at the start, which made it perfect for this exhibition, as I tend to think a lot of British folklore is vaguely sinister in a Wicker Man sort of way.

The exhibition consisted of Ben Edge’s “Frontline Folklore” series of paintings interspersed with objects from the museum’s collection. Now, I LOVE Ben Edge’s paintings (I just ordered a print of that Clown Church one for my house to go with the clown eggs Marcus made – I have a real obsession with creepy-ass clowns lately, maybe because of the clown episode of Wellington Paranormal, which literally made me laugh until I cried), but the real stuff is even scarier, and an old crypt that was full of actual stacks of tombstones was an excellent way to showcase it.

Just look at the unsettling stares of those Morris dancer dolls (designed to showcase the costumes of different troupes) or that giant corn dolly (those always make me think of that Jeffrey Ford “Word Doll” story, which I recommend if you haven’t read it). I actually took a Morris dancing class once, and it is a LOT harder than it looks, so I’m impressed by anyone that can actually do it, but I have to admit that there is something a bit off-putting about the whole thing to anyone who is a bit of an outsider, especially the sides (fortunately not many, these days) that still insist on using black face (when I went to the Morris class, I deliberately picked an all-female side with more progressive views (they dance at Pride and stuff), but I was still scared they’d hear my accent and tell me to get lost or something, and I really had to work up my courage to actually attend. They turned out to be perfectly nice, but it was still a blindingly white affair, and I can see why, if I felt intimidated about going just on account of an American accent), and I would say that Morris is actually one of the more accessible British traditions. Some of the hyper-localised customs give me Tubbs and Edward from The League of Gentlemen vibes (“this is a local shop, for local people; there’s nothing for you here.”), I guess because they seem designed to make outsiders feel like outsiders, but I suppose that’s also how places develop an identity for themselves, so maybe I’m interpreting things in an overly negative way due to my lack of exposure to these customs until moving to the UK as an adult. With all that being said, I think it is the fact that a lot of these practices are contained to one specific village or area that makes them so strange and fascinating to me.

There was a video at the end of the exhibition, made by Ben Edge, where he had filmed some of these practices in action back in 2019, including the Mari Lwyd, which is basically a skeleton ‘obby ‘oss (hobby horse) used in Wales in a sort of caroling tradition, where men carry it from house to house demanding food and drink and singing a special song in Welsh, and if you aren’t expecting it, it has to be way freakier than any carolers at your door (though I would hide from them too). He had also filmed himself in 2020 talking about the way that the pandemic and the BLM movement were changing British folk traditions, such as the elimination of black face from Morris dancing (except for the resistant troupes I mentioned earlier). It seemed really interesting, but it was also very long, and I wasn’t inclined to sit there for an hour and a half in a tiny room with strangers watching a video, so I only caught about ten minutes of it, but maybe it’s available somewhere online. They did have an events programme tied in with the exhibition that included some film screenings and Morris dancing, but I’m still not super keen on the idea of standing in a big crowd, even outside, so I deliberately didn’t visit on one of those days.

Even thought the exhibition was fairly small, I really loved it. The venue was ideal, and the stories behind Ben’s paintings were fascinating (they’re all available to read on his website if you click on the individual paintings), as were the objects selected from the Museum of British Folklore’s collection. I do wish the museum had a more permanent home, because I’d love to see more of their collection as well as learn more about the history behind the traditions. I also think a larger space would give them room to address the ways that some of these traditions have become problematic, and the ways that other customs have evolved to stay alive to the present day. I’m sorry I’m blogging about this too late for you to see this exhibition for yourself, but if it sounded appealing, at least now you’ll know to keep an eye out for any future Museum of British Folklore/Ben Edge exhibitions popping up near you! 4/5.