Building proposal for the Museum of British Folklore developed with architect Adam Richards

Set designer and art director Simon Costin is more readily recognised for his spectacular work in fashion. But he’s a man of many talents. Focussing on the development of a project close to his heart, Simon is in the process of finding a home for the Museum of British Folklore. Things are moving along well having just recently been appointed the director of the Museum of Witchcraft – another milestone towards his dream of housing an extensive collection of folklore tradition under one roof. 

Energetic, insightful and generous; you depart a meeting with Simon Costin feeling inspired and upbeat. His track record is impressive. He’s designed jewellery, directed film projects, curated exhibitions and created strange and wonderful sub-worlds for editorial shoots and catwalk shows. Working with some of the most accomplished names in fashion photography and design including Paolo Roversi, Tim Walker and Alexander McQueen, Simon has been a part of some of the most memorable moments in fashion history over the past 30 years. Despite his outstanding professional achievements, he had long desired to found a museum based on a cultural aspect he feels strongly about – the celebration and preservation of British folklore traditions. In the summer of 2009, Simon decided he couldn’t wait any longer and set up a travelling cabinet of folk curiosity in a caravan. He toured folk festivals up and down the UK spreading the word to folk lovers and held an all-singing, all-dancing launch party in London with fashion ‘folk.’ Archive talks to Simon about his recent appointment at the Museum of Witchcraft, his earliest museum memory and talking to objects.

What would you say your favourite Folklore Museum object is?

It’s difficult to say because each new object that’s donated or gifted to us becomes my favourite. Recently we’ve been gifted a selection of jig dolls. These are wooden or sometimes metal articulated figures, around 35cm – 12in. in height. Street entertainers would often use them when they busked with music. They’re also called dancing dolls, busker’s puppets, loggers, jiggers or Mr or Mrs Jollyboy. They also crop up in the USA, Canada, Australia and all over Europe. Older versions dating back to the 16th century were known as Poupées à la Planchette or Marionettes à la Planchette. These were operated by a horizontal string attached to the musician’s leg and as he or she moved, the doll would appear to dance on a board on the ground. We now have seven figures in our collection and each has its own unique character.

You were recently appointed as the new director of the Museum of Witchcraft following the previous director, Graham King’s retirement and his gifting of the collection to the Museum of British Folklore. It’s early days but how has that been so far? Can you tell me a bit about your future plans for the Museum of Witchcraft?

Obviously it’s hugely exciting for us as the collection is so unique. Witchcraft, superstition and magic are so densely woven through the history of the British Isles. What’s happened is only just sinking in really. Taking on the collection is a huge responsibility and I’m very excited by how it can be expanded upon and developed. Regarding any future plans, for the time being the museum will remain exactly the same and be run in Boscastle for at least the next five years. During this time we plan to assess how the collection could be expanded and whether or not it should remain in Boscastle. What might work is that it becomes a sister museum for the main Museum of British Folklore. We would also like to look at the possibility of touring exhibitions during the time the Museum of Witchcraft is closed for the winter months. This could open up the material to new audiences, which for us would be very important. In the short term we are currently advertising for a manager to run the museum on a day-to-day basis during the summer opening period. Graham King was such an incredible force behind the museum; it will be very hard to find someone to fill his shoes. We have, however, had a huge number of responses to the adverts so we are hopeful that somebody will come forward to fulfil that role.

You went on a tour around folk festivals in the UK to promote your idea of the Museum of British Folklore in 2009. Can you talk to me about the collection of folk artifacts you took with you? What are your personal thoughts on amulets? Do you carry any around with you?

The tour caravan contained a wide variety of objects ranging from a fairground carousel horse head to representations of the Green Man, Punch and Judy puppets, a Jig Doll in the shape of a sailor with ‘HMS Costin’ on his cap, horse brasses and many examples of contemporary art that we commissioned for the tour. There weren’t really any charms as such, although somebody did give us a string of hag stones to hang on the door for good luck. I never wear jewellery or even a watch as I’m too clumsy and lose things, so an amulet would never be on the cards, sadly, as it’s bound to disappear. I have carried around objects which I’ve found and bring back certain memories but that’s about it really.

In what way do you think growing up around antiques has informed your career, particularly your work as a set designer and curator - you must have been surrounded by beautiful objects at home?

I suppose having antique dealers as parents has had a certain influence. They taught me about the history of objects, their uses and why people interact with them in the way they do. I have since become interested in the way that the most humble of objects can be imbued with magical significance, such as an old kitchen knife becoming a witch’s Athame for instance. As a child I loved to watch the way my mother would arrange objects in the house and the various relationships between them and how these relationships would change with time and rearrangement. All these ideas come into play with museum practice of course.

What’s your earliest memory of visiting a museum?

When I was on holiday with my family aged around seven, they took me to a tiny museum somewhere in Cornwall. They think it was in St. Ives but I’ve been back to find it and if it was ever there, it no longer exists. The owner had a mane of black hair, like Kate Bush, I thought at the time, and smelt strongly of patchouli oil. I think it was mainly a museum of toys and they had a fascinating collection of coin-operated, penny slot machines. Once you placed your penny in the slot, a small vignette or miniature room would come to life. A haunted bedroom, an executioner’s dungeon or lovers canoodling by the seaside. The scariest thing of all was a laughing sailor which would rock back and forth with his eyes rolling, while a taped hysterical laugh blared from the speakers. It terrified and fascinated me at the same time. The memory of that museum and the pas- sion of its owner have stayed with me all this time.

Do you own any other collections aside from folk objects?

The main thing my objects have in common is a certain quirky darkness.

Are they focussed or do you prefer more of a cabinet of curiosity approach to collecting?

I suppose I prefer the more cabinet of curiosity approach. Things such as faded worn toys, ventriloquist dummies, masks, waxworks, anatomical studies, taxidermy, automata and hundreds and hundreds of books all jostle for space in my crowded home.

In an interview you said that the objects around you inspire your creativity and that if you were in a white box it would kill you completely. Do you also find comfort in things?

It might sound odd to say but if I’ve been away for a while and I come home, I usually walk around the house saying hello to everything again! Certain objects become friends. There’s always a period of adjustment when a new object enters the house. Where an item is positioned and the relationship that it strikes up with the objects surrounding it is always of interest to me. As we all know from museums, objects take on different roles once placed within a museum. Divorced from their usual context, they can be read in many different ways. Put an object in a dark space and you will come to it in a completely different way to one placed in a light room for example. As for comfort being gained from objects, I absolutely agree, but comfort is only one of the many things you can gain from an object.

What’s the next project you have planned and are most excited about?

The museum project is all consuming these days and my passion for it grows and grows each day. Currently we are beginning the big push towards the capital funding needed to construct the building itself. We are launching a Friends scheme in London, New York and Los Angeles in the spring of 2014. So much will depend on how much money we can raise as to how quickly we can move forward with everything. You may not think that the current time of recession would be the easiest time to be launching a major museum project, but there are currently more wealthy people than there have ever been. And wealthy people are often interested in giving to new and interesting cultural projects. All I can do at this stage is to keep everything crossed. We are also launching an online exhibition platform called ‘21st-Century Folk Culture.’ The aim is to examine contemporary folkloric expression, things such as ghost bikes for example. These are bicycles chained to railings, usually next to a place where a cyclist was killed and they are a form of wayside shrine, which people have constructed ever since there have been roads. We are inviting various curators and practitioners to contribute work which will then be uploaded every two months on a new website. Something to look out for in 2014.

SImon share six of his most memorable career moments

  1. I once designed a ball in a beautiful Palazzo in Florence, which was based on the original tellingof the Cinderella story, which is quite dark. Each of the 14 rooms we used showed a different aspect of the story. One room had bowls of blood and knives as a reference to the way the stepmother enticed her daughters to cut off their toes and heels in order to fit the glass slipper to their foot. When guests arrived they were shown into the cellars instead of being allowed to attend the party happening above. Eventually a concealed wall drew across to reveal a staircase festooned with thousands and thousands of flowers and a performer singing an aria from the opera ‘La Cenerentola.’ A beautiful early 18th-century corridor was completely forested with trees and a long, long table was covered in every conceivable fruit of the forest but all made from chocolate. Mushrooms, sprigs of berries, nuts and acorns – everything made in chocolate.
  2. A few years ago I designed a party for H&M who had brought out a range of clothing with the Parisian designer Sonia Rykiel. It was an imagining of Paris but inside the Grand Palais. It was the largest budget I have ever worked with. Part of the evening was a fashion show conducted on moving floats, each of them very different from the next. We had indoor fireworks, fairground rides, oysters and endless gallons of champagne and it really was a night to remember.
  3. In contrast to that I had a commission to design a vision of Dickensian London made entirely out of cardboard boxes for the Museum of London. It was a great commission and I really enjoyed making it, along with my trusty team of assistants.
  4. Other highlights would be doing the mad early shows for Alexander McQueen and then later for Antonio Berardi in Milan. Working with Gareth Pugh is always a pleasure and quite a challenge due to budgetary restrictions. It can be just as interesting work- ing with very little money as it is working with a larger budget. 
  5. Another person I work alongside quite often is Tim Walker. I did the sets for Tim’s first ever shoot for Vogue Italia over ten years ago and have worked with him ever since.
  6. Last year I was asked to design an installation for a department store in Moscow. Finding out that the store was built on top of the old flower market, I decided to let the flowers reclaim the space. The project was called 107 Flowers, and hidden all over the store were various installations ranging from the very small to the absolutely enormous. The central atrium of the building contained three 14-metre high giant purple orchids. The set construction team from the Russian Bolshoi Ballet company built them for me.