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Dr Martha McGill

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Fortune-telling exhibition

2021 was Coventry’s year as UK City of Culture, and the University of Warwick contributed the Resonate Festival, a year-long programme of talks, events and exhibitions. Covid-19 caused a fair share of disruption, but most things went ahead in some form or another. I made a few contributions: a shadow puppetry show (on which more here), a performance event in which some colleagues and I worked with a group of students to stage some stories about the early modern supernatural, and an exhibition about early modern fortune telling.

The exhibition was originally planned for the British Academy Summer Showcase in London, but a new wave of Covid-19 moved the showcase online. This original iteration of the exhibition ended up as an online talk, with demonstrations. I wanted to do something with all the wasted planning, so I worked with Francesca Farnell and Imogen Knox to organise an exhibition at Coventry Central Library (and later at the university). I’m hoping eventually to convert the exhibition into an interactive online resource, and notes about some of the fortune-telling methods are available here, but in the meantime I’ll offer some reflections on the experience.

We planned the exhibition to be as interactive as possible. There were stations exploring divination by astrology, the Bible, the ‘sieve and shears’, the four elements, the weather, animal behaviour, dreams, uprooting stalks of kale, palmistry, casting lots, animal bones, playing cards, spirit conjuration, second sight, plants, physiognomy, scrying and candle wax. The weather, animal behaviour, spirit conjuration and second sight were covered only by information signs, but every other station had props enabling visitors to try the method out for themselves. This required us to buy a lot of odd things, including a sheep skull, a crystal ball, an old wooden sieve and pair of shears, a trough and supply of kale, imitation 17th-century playing cards, and so on. (This caused much consternation in the university finance team. We’re supposed to use approved suppliers partnered with the university, and none of the approved suppliers dealt in skulls or crystal balls.) For the stations that were just signs we printed the information on A2 formboard (we also had an A1 foamboard welcome sign), and displayed them in sign holders. For the stations with tables we had A3 printed information signs, displayed in acrylic menu holders. We wanted tablecloths, but decided to keep everything easily wipe-able for regular decontamination.

The Resonate Festival branding for the period of the exhibition was ‘Amazing Women’, so we had a ‘women’s stories’ theme running through the exhibition. Most of the information signs featured snippets about women who used the fortune telling method in question. We also made a ‘choose your own adventure’ experience about the lives of early modern women: visitors could choose to use their smartphones to play through the experience as they went around the exhibition, using the fortune-telling methods to help make decisions.

We ran the exhibition as a free drop-in event over four hours, and hired students to help with staffing. Marketing was handled by the Resonate Festival team. We didn’t get quite as many visitors as we hoped – the later event at the university was much busier – but most visitors stayed for a while, and the feedback was very positive. The student assistants were also wonderful; many thanks to Leen Alkhlaifat, Izabelle Apostol and Lucy Treleaven.

It’s always hard to predict in advance which events will be easy to run and which will throw up headaches. The shadow puppetry took a lot of figuring out, and was generally a lot more work than I’d bargained for. The exhibition, in contrast, was pretty smooth sailing, excepting only all the emails with the finance team. We’ve been left with a collection of miscellaneous items and a lot of signs, but I could see myself doing a version of this again in the future, and not having Covid uncertainty hanging over everything would be a big bonus. Meanwhile, I’ll crack on with learning enough programming to make an online version!