Monday 18 August 2014

Controversy over Witches and Wicked Bodies

A new exhibition called Witches and Wicked Bodies is due to go on show at the British Museum this September - and it has prompted an angry comment from one reader of my blog.

Mary Josefina Cade left her comment on my post about the British Museum's Viking Exhibition, saying: "Not too happy about the British Museum's new exhibition. Witchcraft is 'evil'??:"

I had to go and have a look at the link myself, because this was the first I had heard about this exhibition in London. The description of Witchcraft and Wicked Bodies on the British Museum Website says:
"This exhibition will examine the portrayal of witches and witchcraft in art from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. It will feature prints and drawings by artists including Dürer, Goya, Delacroix, Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, alongside classical Greek vessels and Renaissance maiolica.

"Witchcraft concerns the practice of evil. Efforts to understand and interpret seemingly malevolent deeds – as well apportion blame for them and elicit confessions through hideous acts of torture – have had a place in society since classical antiquity and Biblical times. Men, women and children have all been accused of sorcery. The magus, or wise practitioner of ‘natural magic’ or occult ‘sciences’, has traditionally been male, but the majority of those accused and punished for witchcraft, especially since the Reformation, have been women. They are shown as monstrous hags with devil-worshipping followers. They represent an inversion of a well-ordered society and the natural world."
I thanked Mary for pointing out that this exhibition is coming to the British Museum, but I would certainly agree wording in the the description that says "Witchcraft concerns the practice of evil" could be considered offensive to modern witches. Perhaps that description might have been better phrased as: "In history, witchcraft was seen to concern the practice of evil."

What do you think? Do leave a comment below.

I also don't know if this exhibition is the same as the one also called Witches and Wicked Bodies that was on in Scotland last year, which I missed. If so, I'm pleased it has come to London - and I'll certainly be visiting the exhibition to have a look for myself.

The picture shows Agostino Veneziano (fl. 1509–1536), The Witches’ Rout (The Carcass). Engraving, c. 1520. and has been copied from the image on the British Museum Website used to promote the exhibition.

19/8/14 UPDATE: Following complaints, the British Museum has removed from its website the line: "Witchcraft concerns the practice of evil".

For full details of the exhibition, visit:

Previous related posts


Jacqui A. said...

That needs re-wording, outrageous !!

Unknown said...

It looks to me to have been written by someone with no actual knowledge on the subject and just a generalized prejudiced viewpoint.

Pre Christianity there was no overall view of witchcraft and various priests and priestesses of recognized religions came to be labeled witches in an attempt to criminalize and eliminate them.
This needs a total re write by someone who has a real understanding of the subject.

slothgoth said...

Or any understanding at all, really.

Unknown said...

I just sent this (although for the record I like your suggested rewording better, Lucya - your editing trumps mine as ever!)

Date: 18 August 2014 22:14
Subject: Wording of website description of "Witches and wicked bodies"

I would like to complain about the wording of your website description of the exhibit "Witches and wicked bodies" at
Specifically, the sentence "witchcraft concerns the practice of evil" is highly offensive to witches and practitioners of witchcraft. Witches have, as you rightly highlight in your exhibition, been persecuted for centuries, for many reasons ranging from superstition to misogyny. Contemporary witches continue to be maligned and misunderstood in the modern day; it is inappropriate and unnecessary for your website to be part of this persecution by disseminating inaccurate information about witchcraft, particularly since as a public body I am sure you would wish to behave in an inclusive manner. Witches are also taxpayers.
The point that your copywriter is making might better be expressed as "witchcraft has often been portrayed as concerning the practice of evil".
Sophie Mason

Badwitch said...

Thanks for the comments and, Sophie, thanks for contacting the BM. I have also emailed the BM asking for the wording to be changed and for a comment. If I get a reply, I will post it on my blog.

Badwitch said...

I've had an apology from the British Museum. This is what it said:

"Hi Lucya,

Thank you very much for your email.

"Firstly, may I apologies for any offence that may have been caused, it was certainly not intended.

"I have spoken to our Marketing and Web teams and the line has now been removed from the description of the exhibition:

"To clarify a few further points for your interest - yes it is a version of ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ that was on show at Edinburgh last year, to which we lent about 40 items. The version here has been expanded to include many more prints and drawings from our own holdings, and has excluded the 20th century section. It also shows 6 further objects that explore the image of the 'witch' in addition to the prints and drawings.

"I saw in your blog that you are interested in coming to see the exhibition, I do hope that is still the case?

"Thank you again for your understanding."

Unknown said...

I think we should have a badwitch blog outing to the museum

Badwitch said...

Sounds good to me.

Unknown said...

Update: I've had a very polite reply from the Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the museum. He explained that the original text was intended to be historical context, apologised for offence caused, and said "the previous version of the exhibition description was not well expressed, hence the amendment, and for that I am sorry. I am grateful that you have contacted the British Museum and I hope you will come to see the exhibition when it opens."

Badwitch said...

Sophie - that is great that you got a reply. Thanks for letting me know.

Badwitch said...
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