At the age of seven, Simon Costin was in Padstow on a family holiday. “We turned a corner, and there was this gigantic, cavorting black beast in front of me,” he recalls. “It scared the living daylights out of me.” Simon had walked straight into the path of one of two "Obby Osses" that parade around the North Cornish town each May Day – a custom with origins unknown that the folklorist Doc Rowe has described as “a united proclamation – almost a clenched fist in the face of time and outside influences.”
For Simon, who went on to found The Museum of British Folklore, it was “a moment of true magic. It was as if reality had shifted. I was seeing ordinary people – nurses, doctors, bakers, whatever they might be – become something else entirely and it left a marked impression on me.” Simon’s parents nurtured this fascination with folk by buying him The Reader’s Digest book of British Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. The book became “like a bible” to him. “There are over 700 seasonal customs and events in the UK,” he explains. “It has been a lifelong passion to visit as many as I can.”
Simon studied Theatre Design and History of Art at Wimbledon School of Art where he was taught by the filmmaker, Derek Jarman. “Derek was instrumental in many ways,” Simon explains. “He knew I had an interest in magic so he took me to the British Museum and showed me Dr John Dee’s spirit mirror – a piece of polished obsidian used to summon visions. He also initiated a mask-making project and I chose to make my mask out of taxidermy fish skin. That kind of set me off on this path…”
After college, Simon worked in the music industry as a set designer. He also began to make jewellery “to go clubbing in.” His controversial creations incorporated bird claws and animal skulls and are now part of The Met collection in New York. In the late 1980s, these macabre accessories were discovered by a young British designer studying at Central Saint Martins. “He managed to track me down at my squat in Bloomsbury, so I loaned him some pieces for his degree show. That designer was Alexander McQueen.” Their meeting marked the beginning of a long-term collaboration. Simon went on to create otherworldly sets for McQueen’s first shows, photographer Tim Walker, as well as numerous other brands and fashion houses.
Meanwhile, his interest in folkloric rituals and traditions remained undimmed. (Simon has attended the Hastings May Day parade, Jack in the Green, each year for almost thirty years.) In 2008, increasingly frustrated by the fact that there wasn’t a museum of British folklore, Simon purchased a caravan off eBay to create one. He painted the exterior in a “theatrical, fairground style” and displayed artefacts from his fledgling collection inside: Jig dolls, Punch and Judy puppets and a mitten from the annual Tar Barrels event at Ottery St Mary – an eyebrow singeing event in which locals run through the town with flaming barrels on their shoulders. He spent six months on the road, taking his mobile Museum of British Folklore to various villages where seasonal customs were taking place. “Everywhere I went, it got the same reaction: ‘Why don’t we have anything like this in the UK?’”
That road trip sparked a series of exhibition ideas, the first being the question of how to represent Morris dancing in the context of a museum. “There are around 800 Morris dancing ‘sides’ in the UK,” explains Simon, “so what I decided to do was to send out miniature cloth figures and ask each side to dress their figure in their costumes.” To date, Simon has received over 200 mini figures, each representing a Morris dancing side in the UK. The figures are intricately imagined: some have human hair woven into their heads or talismans sewn into their costumes; some wear stockings and suspenders. “They’re like pieces of folk art,” he says. “They each have these wonderful degrees of eccentricity and character.”
The following year, in 2010, Mellany Robinson – a fellow folk enthusiast and experienced arts project manager – offered to help Simon develop a temporary exhibition programme for his museum of British folklore. The duo have worked together ever since, curating and staging exhibitions across the UK that celebrate British vernacular culture. “I think museums find it very difficult to pin down folklore because it's constantly mutating,” he reasons. “But that's what folklore is: it's not a fixed thing.”
In that time, Simon has witnessed a marked rise in the British public’s interest. “Folklore is definitely having a moment,” he announces. “I would go so far as to say we're in a third period of folklore revival, the first being around the time of Cecil Sharp in the Victorian era; the second being in the ’60s and ’70s.” It’s an interest that pervades all areas of popular culture from film (Midsommar; Enys Men) to club nights (Klub Nos Lowen in Cornwall) to zines (Stone Club; Weird Walk). “Look at Boss Morris,” he says of the all-female side who performed alongside Wet Leg at this year’s Brit awards. “Even Morris dancing has become trendy, which is something I never thought I’d say…”
For Simon, this youthful re-evaluation of folkloric traditions has had a direct impact on his and Mellany’s ambitions for The Museum of British Folklore. The museum's latest exhibition, Making Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain, which was staged at Compton Verney between February and June this year, was supported by a grant from the Heritage Fund. “We would never have received that funding 10 years ago,” he says, “but we were supported hugely by the whole team at the University of the Arts London, who worked tirelessly on the bid with Mellany. It would never have happened without their support.”
Simon’s burgeoning collection of miniature Morris dancers were on display. (“They were the thing that people gravitated to.”) Elsewhere, full-size folk costumes borrowed from across the British Isles were exhibited against an immersive backdrop of perambulating beasts, the Burry Man and Barrel Burners from Doc Rowe’s extensive archive. (Doc has filmed the folkloric happenings and vernacular arts of Britain and Ireland since the 1960s.) “It’s very important to me as a curator that people get to experience the madness and the life of these things,” Simon insists. “Without that, the exhibition wouldn’t have worked in the same way.”
Interview by Nell Card.
Photographs by James Bannister.
The Museum of British Folklore exhibition Making More Mischief will open in the new University of the Arts (UAL) building in Stratford, London in April 2024.