Nordic Noir: Creating Denmark’s First Museum of Witchcraft

Ribe depicted on on an 1893 Map. David Rumsey Map Collection.

In December 2018 a small group from the Museum of Southwest Jutland in Denmark, consisting of Lulu Anne Hansen (Head of Historical Research), Mette Slyngborg (Curator), Louise Lindgaard (Research Assistant), and Maria Elleby (PhD Fellow), went on a two-day road trip to London and Oxford to gather inspiration and ideas for our upcoming Ribe Witch Museum, the first of its kind in the country, which will open in 2020. The museum will focus on the witchcraft trials of Denmark (many of which took place in Ribe itself, a small town on the east coast which experienced twenty-two cases between 1572 and 1652), with an outlook to other European cases. As such, it will have a very dark approach and theme, focusing on the prevailing fears of early modern people and the legal systems that allowed prosecutions to develop.

The historic property in Ribe that will house the witch museum. Photo: Author.

In early November, Louise and Maria had met Malcolm Gaskill at the conference Fear and Loathing in the Earthly City: Negative Emotions in the Medieval and Early Modern Period in Copenhagen, where he gave a fascinating keynote lecture on ‘Emotional Exchanges: Fearing and Loathing Witches in the Early Modern World’, drawing on his curatorial research for Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft at the Ashmolean Museum. After hearing his talk, Maria and Louise talked with him about our own museum project. Having heard much about Spellbound it was agreed that the working group behind the museum would try to travel to Oxford to visit the exhibition before the end of its run. Thus, in mid-December, Lulu, Mette, Maria, and Louse set out for England.

Discussing the museum at a recent planning meeting. Photo: Author.

The trip started in London with a visit to The British Library, where we met with Julian Harrison, mastermind of last year’s blockbuster show Harry Potter: A History of Magic. Afterwards we went to Oxford. As we arrived at the train station, we were met with the beautifully designed posters for Spellbound on the exit barriers. We had seen the exhibition trailer beforehand, back in Denmark, and had noticed that it was also shared on social media by fellow Danish historians who are not necessarily working on witchcraft or folklore. We all agreed that the design choices, art style, and atmosphere of the marketing campaign was stunning and set the mood in a wonderful way. It was not ‘too much’ or too contemporary in its approach; it provided a very good indicator of what sort of exhibition we were going to see.

Following lunch in the Ashmolean’s Rooftop Restaurant, Malcolm gave us a tour of the exhibition. We were all struck by how brilliantly the first room worked, setting the theme profoundly. The simplicity of this antechamber highlighted a few representative objects along with several thought-provoking questions posed on the walls, challenging us, the spectators, to interrogate the role of ‘magical thinking’ in our own lives. The small witch in a bottle, on loan from the nearby Pitt Rivers Museum, was captivating. All in all, it was fantastic to be able to experience the exhibition along with some of the people who had developed it; as we have much less time – approximately two years in total – to prepare for our permanent future museum in Denmark than it took to mount Spellbound, it was very beneficial to be able to gather advice and suggestions. It also allowed us to discuss design choices, communication styles, and the practicality of many different display strategies. The show’s use of contemporary artists and incorporation of their creative interpretations of different themes in particular was an innovative, emotive idea that inspired a new concept for one of our rooms where we had not yet found the right ‘angle’; we’re now considering an artistic approach for this gallery. Spellbound was also marked by a high degree of historical insight and integrity, and we gained many new perspectives on past witchcraft from the interpretative labels.

Gallows Hill in Ribe, where the last of the town’s witches was burned. © Can Stock Photo/frankix.

Contemporary artist Annie Cattrell with her Spellbound installation Verocity 1, a fiery filmic response to the early modern witch trials. We were inspired by the show to incorporate artistic elements into the Ribe museum. Photo: James Brown.

We also took in, with some envy, the bountiful gorgeous objects at hand: stunning manuscripts, John Dee’s crystal, rings, shoes, carvings, and many more exhibits all provided us with ideas and inspiration in terms of what we should search for and include within our own museum. The condemned witches of the Danish trials seldom left many physical objects behind, as they were either destroyed or forgotten over the years. However, inspired by the creative selection of objects in Spellbound, an example being the protective markings inscribed on wooden pillars and doors, we began to explore if there was surviving evidence of such practices in Denmark. So far, we have already come across several different objects ritually concealed under floorboards as well as in walls. We have also found at least one apotropaic graffito on a brick from a house (pictured). We also discovered that the iconic brown and salt-glazed ‘witch bottles’ – the Bellarmine or Bartmann jugs often discovered in the British Isles, and included within Spellbound – also exist in a Danish context, where they are called Skæggemand eller Skæggemunk, which translates to ‘beardy man’ and ‘beardy monk’.

Spellbound’s setting of witchcraft within the wider context of historical magic was very effective, and has inspired a follow-up idea for a sister museum to the Witch Museum, the Magic Museum. This will open later than the former and will focus on the magical attributes of witchcraft and counter-witchcraft, underlying folkloric beliefs, and their enduring influence on contemporary practitioners.

We are all very grateful for the warm and welcoming experience we had visiting the Spellbound exhibition, and the very high level of professional expertise we encountered from everyone involved. We look forward to repaying the hospitality in Denmark in 2020!

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