How The Exhibition Came About
When we formed the Doreen Valiente Foundation in 2011 and set it's charitable objects to be "To protect artefacts which are important to the past, present and future of pagan religions" and "To make the artefacts available for education and research" we felt that the first of these was relatively obvious but that the second was open to rather wider interpretation. It seemed clear that the most suitable place for the physical aspects of Doreen Valiente's legacy, the artefacts, books and documents was a permanent museum space where they can be preserved, protected and exhibited so that the wider public, to whom they actually belong could benefit from them, learn from them and enjoy them and so it's always been an ambition to open such a museum to achieve this. But a museum is far from the end of it, we wanted to create a research facility in the same (or nearby) building to engage in the process of cataloguing, recording, transcribing the collection - not to mention the additional archival information we've been gathering and accepting for several years now - really to create a physical place that took the name of our sister organisation: a true "Centre For Pagan Studies".
Meeting to discuss plans 2015
But plans don't always end up the way they start - we had a few false starts, some disappointments, moments of hope and moments of dejection along the way. One of our biggest issues has been trying to do the whole project under public ownership as charitable trust. We believe this is a vital component for the far reaching and, as yet unimagined, future. If we'd been a private or commercial organisation or just a collection of individuals we could have attracted investment funding and established a business model and we may have opened our museum sooner, we certainly had the required skillsets in our ranks to start businesses and be entrepreneurs, but we felt this would have not been "the right thing" to do. So we've slogged away at funding, donations, sponsorships and raised what money we can ourselves by doing what we consider "the right thing", like the publication of Doreen's books and membership to the Foundation and so on which have fitted our objects and raised funds.
John at work on display templates
Now we've had a lot of help along the way, a lot of good people and organisations who have admired our work and our intentions and have tried to help where they can. We've long nurtured a relationship with Royal Pavilion Museums and the local council in Brighton but the opportunity hasn't ever arisen to actually form a partnership or joint venture before . . . that is until last year (2015) when we set off for some more speculative meetings with some of our senior contacts at RPM who had not let our ambitions slip from their minds all these years . . .
John & Ashley measuring lighting
They showed us around some premises, some places they were involved with indirectly and inside the Royal Pavilion Museum itself . . . John and I nudged each other as we looked up at the prestigious gallery space and whispered to each other "this would do!". Imagine our surprise as it became clear that virtually no suggestion was off the table any more, RPM was actively seeking partners just like ourselves to mount joint projects, no they didn't want us to donate or loan our collection to them but would team up with us to mount an exhibition in one of their existing spaces . . . and which ones did we like the look of ? We were astounded, could this really be happening? It's fair to say John is somewhat less conservative than I and so before I could say anything he was telling them "Preston Manor is a really great place, isn't it?".
Julie & Sarah considering artefacts
We'd long been aware of Preston Manor, a splendid building set in beautiful grounds given to the public of Brighton after the last in line of its private owners, the Stanfords, died in 1922. And so we began in earnest to learn the process of mounting an exhibition under the guidance of Royal Pavilion Museums and a number of museum-world contacts we have outside of that. Accredited museums like Royal Pavilions are used to mounting their own exhibitions or hiring them in from other accredited and well established places, we were most certainly an experiment for them! But we've worked together, built some great relationships and taken on board many of the mysteries of museumology and been sensible about what we can deliver and where it will lead. So it was agreed to mount an introductory exhibition at Preston Manor leading up to a much deeper look at the Doreen Valiente collection later in the year in its own dedicated venue. We wanted to tell the story of modern day paganism, where it's ancient roots lie and how those roots underpin its practices. For too long people have been trying to prove a continuum of exact practice in relation to pagan beliefs and when unable to do so have presented a mythology as if it were hard fact. Of course Gerald Gardner was not immune to such temptations!
More research from Sarah
The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere between the extremes, the principle that lack of evidence is not evidence of lack is very important but we wanted to present something that was accurate, honest and thought-provoking, Doreen herself spent her life in pursuit of the truth, it was she who proved that Gardner's supposed initiator "Dorothy Clutterbuck" was not a figment of Gardner's imagination and her exemplary research laid the foundations for future historians like Philip Heselton and Professor Ronald Hutton to pick up and carry on the trail, both of whom are involved with the Foundation, Philip as our author and biographer of both Gerald and Doreen and Ronald as one of the trustees of the Foundation.
John & Ashley while filming a promotional video
So the title "Folklore, Magic and Mysteries: Modern Witchcraft and Folk Culture in Britain" was chosen for the Preston Manor exhibition and we set about trying to see how we could, in 3 months (!) create something that would, effectively tell the tale of human religious development over two or three hundred thousand years in about 15 exhibits and a 3 minute introduction! Whilst Doreen's collection "zooms in" on the period of her life from about 1945 to 1999 and really tells in detail the story of the modern witchcraft revival that lit the spark that became the modern pagan revival we thought that this story could best be told in detail in its own exhibition and that it would form just a part of the narrative at Preston Manor. When we thought about it and looked harder we realised that Doreen's collection had the necessary artefacts to explain very early paganism right through history to the present day. Also with Doreen's strong links to Brighton and Sussex (she visited Preston Manor several times and was well aware of its history) we could set the exhibition in geographical context as well.
John making his point while filming!
We also wanted to demonstrate that paganism is very much a part of modern British culture and we recruited the help of organisations and individuals like CoA, The Pagan Federation, OBOD and experts in modern Heathenry all of whom supported us and have helped us to stage exhibits of living paganism in Britain. With a proposed programme of events we felt we could do even more to show the British public how Paganism is a vital part of its diverse cultural and religious landscape, in fact, just as Gardner had proclaimed, an indigenous one!
Whilst the Preston Manor exhibition already had it's title, we searched for something rather more snappy for the later exhibition that would zoom in on the story of Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente and it was John who came up with the perfect idea which, in true witchcraft tradition, was hidden in plain sight all along, when he proclaimed suddenly: "Where Witchcraft Lives!!!!!" (which was the title of Doreen's first published book in 1962 and recently republished by us. It was perfect, it encapsulates on all levels what we are trying to show, with both exhibitions, actually.
The dreadful shock of losing John (Belham-Payne), our founder and Doreen's heir so suddenly in February 2016, on the eve of us entering the physical building phase of the exhibition, was a massive blow in every way. John was single-mindedly pursuing the project and was, in fact, our chief display designer. It was only with the massive support from others in the community that we were able to do as John absolutely insisted and carry on towards opening these exhibitions in his memory. We reflect so sadly that he was not there to cut the ribbons at the opening of the exhibition which goes down in history as final evidence of him keeping his promise to Doreen when she left him the collection to "do the right thing" with it . . . .
John Belham-Payne (1952-2016)