Beyond The Museum: Chaos Magic, Local History & Occult Data Collection

Michael McHugh
May 25, 2018 · 11 min read

Before we journey into the beyond I need to give you some housekeeping information……

Mick Davies, host of Beyond The Museum at Shipley Art Gallery 13/03/18

I’m going to tell you about how I accidentally turned a local history project into a gallery about chaos magic and how I used a psychic to collect data on lost objects in a museum.

I work for Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums or TWAM — a museum service in the North East of England that manages nine museums & art galleries and an archive service. We look after nearly 1.1 million objects and have nearly 14km of archive documents on shelving..

Two years ago I curated and designed a permanent gallery development at the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead.

This project was dedicated to an old museum in Gateshead that isn’t there anymore. It was called Saltwell Park Museum and it was Gateshead’s Local & Industrial Museum. It opened in 1933 and closed in 1969.

In 1974 its collection got dispersed and absorbed into the newly formed Tyne & Wear Museums metropolitan museum service.

Saltwell Park Museum was a badly run museum and the collection had next to no documentation, so most of the provenance of the objects had been lost.

With a collection of less than 11,000 objects, it was an unremarkable provincial museum that represented a pretty traditional view of history and the world.

I felt nobody had any good ideas of how to use this mess of a collection.

I was originally brought into the project to consult with people who lived in the area and see what they wanted but I ended up managing the gallery development, leading on its design and doing a lot of collections work.

The people I spoke to were mostly in their late 60s and older. Not a large group but pretty vocal about bringing the museum back to life which was one of the reasons we got money from DCMS Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund to renovate a gallery within the Shipley.

They wanted a recreation of the old museum. I felt this didn’t have much value, especially given that the Shipley is an art gallery, a centre for design and craft in the North East and trying to encourage new audiences. There were plenty of local history galleries and heritage centres in the area…too many maybe? Did we need another one?

What became apparent is that people had vague, confused and widely differing memories of this museum and its collection. Adding to the opaque nature of the project and lack of documentation there were almost no images from inside this museum when it was open.

The museum seemed to exist in people’s heads, which I found interesting.

Museums workers (collections and curatorial staff) also thought that the collection wasn’t significant and could not view it beyond the narrow prism of local history and nostalgia. There is an identikit method of curating, designing and developing permanent galleries in museum sector and I wanted us to try something new.

In the end we built a gallery with almost no text based interperation, apart from a very simple introduction.

There are no graphic panels, timelines, perspex mounts, object labels or mentions of local history or heritage.

We decided the objects that would go on display by a process of free association. I convinced the vocal group of residents and stakeholders that this would be a better way of developing the gallery. Though reticent and wary they were on board.

The design of the gallery is really flexible and can easily be changed in the future. To me it was about visual language. But it can be read in lots of ways, you can project your own ideas onto it. Some people think the 300 million year old Calamite fossil is a piece of contemporary craft.

In the gallery there is a large golden goat (which was the symbol of Gateshead up until 1974) it sits above a jukebox that plays music bookended by the years 1933–1969.

The jukebox has a playlist of global popular music including; Italian film soundtracks, French chanteuse, dream pop, Jamacian rocksteady & dub, gospel, soul, Scott Walker and Nancy Sinatra amongst other genres.

The playlist is mixed together with interviews we did with local residents and museum staff who talk about how memories are unreliable and the mess of curating so called lost collections.

As the Saltwell Park Museum collection was a white, colonial and patricarchal view of the world I decided on a playlist to counter that. The best way to do this was to use the most diverse, accessible and classless artform in the world — pop music.

The playlist was decided by channeling the recordings we made with people — the tracks are all about memory; pictures, mirrors, images, dreams, rain, lost love. It’s another way of telling the story — as opposed to just nostlagia. The museum is talking through the playlist. The jukebox is a CD jukebox that can read CD-Rs, it could be changed at any time. The jukebox is a replica 1950s model and some people think it was in the old museum.

I told people that I wanted the gallery to unlock the latent power of these overlooked and discarded objects so we could create something new and radical.

I asked people to imagine the new gallery as an altar to Gateshead that would help us look at the place and the objects in new ways. It would be like a new religion and a transcendental experience for different audiences.

People thought I was a bit mad but warmed to my ideas. In the end we created a challenging but beautiful space and people loved it. The gallery photographs really well.

When the gallery opened my mate told me I had inadvertently created a gallery about chaos magic, complete with occult references and told me that the surrealists would have loved it — he said it was Max Ernst meets Local History and it was a cosmic egg.

The central idea of Chaos Magic is that belief is a tool. It’s about creating something out of nothing, challenging orthodoxies and creating your own realities.

My friend felt the gallery was all about belief and the construction of reality we create in our minds. He said I had released these objects from their psychic chains.

During the gallery development I was reading The KLF, Chaos, Magic and the band that burned a million pounds by John Higgs and watching lots of Werner Herzog and Andrei Tarkovsky films. I had Werner Herzog’s voice talking about the ecstatic truth of things in my head a lot of the time. I was also listening to the KLF Chill Out album and The Orb Live/Evil 93 album.

After the gallery opened my senior manager continued to berate me about uncovering FACTS about the objects- something I wasn’t interested in. She was worried about the lack of information.

I half joked that I would bring in a psychic and we’d have a seance to find this lost data — it would be an occult data collection event and people would love it.

She thought I was joking.

A year later, in January this year, I rang her up and told her that I’d met a local psychic called Suzanne Gill and I wanted to programme a free public event at the Shipley where the psychic would do live objects readings (or psychometry).

Suzanne Gill

We would call the event Beyond The Museum.

I told her it would be a like bit of theatre and a creative and exciting way of thinking about objects differently. I also told her it would be cheap and Suzanne would do it for free.

I informed her that I knew two guys from Newcastle University- Tim Shaw & John Bowers — who do this thing they call Mythogeosonics where they capture sonic data from objects and the environment. They would use the lost objects and perform at the event as the psychic did the readings.

Tim Shaw & John Bowers

I said this would be a serious thing; the psychic is real and Tim & John could been seen as scientists capturing and amplifying data — live — as opposed to some guys with beards improvising ambient music.

I described to her the event as crafting the unexpected. It would be like the Antiques Roadshow and The Quatermass Experiment or something that Nigel Kneale would write.

We would transcribe the psychic readings and attach them to the accessioned objects after. I eventually got a sign off.

In the meantime I put out a question via twitter and got a good response.

Have any museums ever captured info on objects with unknown provence using ESP as form of data collection?

Short answer was no. So this would be a world first.

People talked about spooky evenings at the museum and ghost hunts but never a serious event run by a museum that viewed a psychic or trance medium as a valid form of data collection.

The event took place on Tuesday 13th March. 160 attended which was capacity for the gallery.

Image:Nigel John

Though well planned the event received no press coverage. The comms team for TWAM were extremely worried about it. I was made to prepare lots of press statements in advance of angry negative feedback and comments.

In the end we had a really diverse and strange mix of people who attended. It was a new audience for the gallery. There was no controversy or scandal. It didn’t get into the Daily Mail.

Image:Nigel John

Before the event myself, Mick Davies (the host for the evening) and Tim & John discussed the format - we wanted something that would make you feel like you were trapped in a lift and create an atmosphere of reverance like a church service or mass — with Mick, the host, as the de facto priest.

Image:Nigel John

We were all very nervous — this was not a scripted or rehearsed event.

Before Suzanne came on we asked people to switch off mobile phones so as not to interfere with the psychic readings and sonic aspects of the evening. We asked people to refrain from talking. Mick was a fantastic host.

Suzanne performed readings with objects for 45 minutes. We didn’t know what she was going to say before hand. All the objects she used were of unknown provenance and from the Saltwell Park Museum Collection

Image:Nigel John
Image:Nigel John
Image:Nigel John

Suzanne believes that spirit guides communicate through her. I believe that she believes this and I held an agnostic and neutral position when planning the event.

We had no expectations; we didn’t require any specific information. I asked her not to interact with the audience. I also told her to take her time and not feel rushed. I was basically telling her, obliquely, that she could say anything. This was not a test of her abilities. Nothing she said would be wrong or inaccurate.

Image: Nigel John

How did people respond? What happened?

The event felt like a mass meditation. It felt like a strange immersive theatrical production. Suzanne readings were extremely abstract and obscure, hardly anything was specific. Which was great. I’ll be attaching the transcriptions to the data records of the objects.

Image:Nigel John

There were lots of long silences which created an exciting tension. I watched the audience throughout, people seemed gripped. The whole thing had a unique and rich atmosphere.

I think the audience were waiting for something to frighten them. The conditions were right. In the end there was no ectoplasm, spirits did not appear and nobody was frightened or shocked. There were no scares but I think something more interesting happened.

We had an open Q&A at the end with all the people involved including myself. We filmed the event too and you can watch it on youtube.

In answering an audience question during this Q&A I said I wasn’t interested in history and the passive museum experience. Museums are rooted within the occult and they don’t even realise it. I said they summon ghosts and spirits all the time, that to me were far more malevolent and dangerous than what we were doing……it’s called nationalism.

Image:Nigel John

What did the audience say?

The strangest event I’ve ever been to

We didn’t know if it was real or not

It felt like something from League of Gentlemen or Black Mirror on TV — it felt like a film

Highly original and challenging for a museum. Would happily pay for future events like

From museum staff? I think they are ignoring that it ever happened.

Where do we go from here?

Live object handling with hypnotised curators?

Live past life regression oral histories?

Do we take Beyond The Museum on tour?

I wrote some blog posts for Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums about Saltwell Park Museum and its collection here:

Michael McHugh

Written by

Museum | Archives | Creative Production | Public Engagement | Audience Development | Disk Jock & Record Label owner | Useless Enthusiast | Personal Views.

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