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Simon Costin on fashion and the Museum of British Folklore

In 2009 internationally renowned designer Simon Costin created a touring Museum of British Folklore. In April 2010 the Museum took up semi-permanent residence at Port Eliot in North Cornwall.



You went to art school. Was this to study fashion originally?

I did a two year Foundation course and then my BA at Wimbledon School of Art in Theatre Design and History of Art.

Since then you've been involved in all sorts of projects - for example featuring as an actor in Derek Jarman's 'Angelic Conversation' - but you're best known as a set designer, working particularly in the fashion industry. Is that accurate? Can you describe this work a little more? What are the most memorable projects you've been involved in over the years?

I have worked as a designer and art director since leaving college as well as making installation art work.

Derek Jarman took various projects at Wimbledon and was one of the most truly inspiring people I've ever met. There's not a week goes by without my thinking of him in one way or another. Educated, anti-authoritarian people like that don't seem to exist in this country anymore. His was a singular voice and as a writer, painter and film maker he showed us as students that we didn't need to straight-jacket ourselves in any way.

Alexander McQueen wrote to me when he was a student. I had made several pieces of jewellery using somewhat unusual materials (picture 'Momento Mori' (1986) above) and he asked if he could use them for his degree show. Up until that point I had had very little contact or interest in the fashion industry. We got on really well, became friends and I ended up designing his catwalk shows for the next seven years. He was a remarkable designer and will be greatly missed.

I have been very lucky in my working career to have been able to work with several hugely talented people. My work as a set designer with photographers really took wing when I started to work with Nick Knight and Tim Walker (picture below left). Both have become very good friends and the projects we have worked on together have involved many weird and wonderful situations too numerous to mention.

My work as an art director has taken me all over the world from setting a group of journalists in a crater in Iceland while leather clad para-gliders circled overhead, to re-creating Paris in one third scale inside the Grand Palais for 2000 guests who watched as the Arch de Triomphe split in two and a parade of fashion models on floats whirled by seated on giant horses heads, chandeliers and swings...


Sounds amazing...and you also contributed to the St Ives International 1999. How did this come about?

I was invited to contribute a piece of work to the As Dark as Light project in 1999 by Katy Sender, the organiser of the event. Each artist was given a location to work with and I was shown a beautiful ruined tin mine site. I installed a gigantic Glitter Ball inside one of the main halls on the hillside, which revolved and sent beams of light across the landscape at night.


Coming to the Museum of British Folklore: what is your personal interest in folklore? Does it overlap with your other work or is it something completely separate?

I have been interested in Myths and Folk Stories for as long as I can remember.

For a child they offer a means of making sense of the world. They represent a series of lessons that work on both a practical and a psychological level. They are fundamental to humanity, and have always been with us and we ignore them at our peril.

Quite often over the years, I have tried to find a place where I could learn more about Britain's rich folk heritage only to discover that we don't actually have any such institution. This is strange really when we produce so much of it. Over the past fifteen years I've become increasingly involved with the customs themselves, not only going to witness them but also taking part when invited to do so.

The interest in Folklore is completely separate from my work as a practice but there is a blurring of interests. I have been involved with it for so long now that it's hard to say where one thing stops and another starts. My early artworks were influenced by fairy stories and folk tales. Much of my work with Tim Walker takes me into mysterious other worlds where changes in scale have echoes of Alice in Wonderland, so I suppose there are overlaps. My experience as a designer will certainly come into play when it comes to setting out the displays for my museum project.

What is the wider cultural and political significance of folklore and the events and festivals you are most interested in? Are they just entertainment? If not what makes them special in your view?

The various traditions and festivals that take place across the UK each year are certainly not just spectacles or entertainment although many are beautiful and awe inspiring to watch or take part in. They represent a moment out of time, where the norms of existence are bent or forgotten. While we are rooted in the here and now, they help to put us in touch with our past and help to build community spirit, foster an interest in where we have come from and the things that are important to us.

Folklore is something that is created by people living in a specific culture and is a universal phenomena with many cross-overs with other nationalities. After all, it deals with universal themes, the coming of summer and the beginning of winter, celebrations of life and memorials for the dead.

When you were creating the museum was it easy to decide what kind of artefacts and events were eligible for inclusion? In other words is it possible to define what is meant by folklore? You mention that folklore has an important relationship to the past, yet ironically many events that seem ancient or timeless have been subject to all kinds of reinventions and revivals over the years, and many are in fact modern in this sense...

The choice of artefacts currently being collected for the museum are drawn from my own personal likes and is therefore hugely subjective. Once the project expands and other curators come on board, I'm sure that will change, and the spectrum of things will no doubt broaden.

It is quite hard to define folklore but one could say that it is a body of traditional belief, custom, and expression, handed down largely by word of mouth and circulating mostly outside of commercial and academic means of communication and instruction. Every group bound together by common interests and purposes, whether educated or uneducated, rural or urban, possesses a body of traditions which may be called its folklore.

Folklore is reflected in everything from the names we bear from birth to the names of our local pub. The Green Man for instance. Folklore is the slang we use, the secret languages of gangs from school children to guilds and masonic groups. It is the shaping of everyday experiences in stories swapped around the kitchen table or told on blog sites. Folklore can be a roadside shrine to commemorate a killed pedestrian or the massive public display formed when Princess Diana died. Folklore is the cry of foxhunters as they ride across a field and the weather lore of a farmer. It is scrawled on urban landscapes by graffiti artists or woven into the fabric of churches, mosques and temples. Folklore is community life and values, artfully expressed in myriad forms and interactions. Universal, diverse and enduring, it enriches the country and makes us a commonwealth of cultures.

The museum started life as a touring exhibition in a caravan. This must have limited the kind of things you could show. What other constraints have you had to respond to and how will that change in the future? Have you been able to make much use of Doc Rowe's archive?

This project is ongoing. I see the primary focus of the museum being its collection of artefacts, photographs, films, oral histories, manuscripts and assorted ephemera, all drawn from the study of our annual customs themselves, as they exist and have existed. This would form the main body of the archive, which would be made available to the public for study and research.

Doc Rowe's archive will be invaluable in achieving this and I am currently applying for funding to conserve and digitise some of his most 'at risk' material. The way in which these things could be displayed is exciting to me, as it would be to anyone who has visited a well- designed museum and been given another insight into material which they had perhaps overlooked before. I imagine that the bulk of visitors to the space may not have come into contact with much of the material displayed, which is exciting in itself.

The secondary focus would be the way in which I hope to engage the actual makers involved in various forms of folk art, from straw dolly makers, well dressers, and barge painters, and then contemporary artists who make work that deals with folkloric themes. One of the ideas for how to show the wide variety of Morris team outfits is to send a selection of 200 teams a blank doll which they would then dress in their team kit. Eventually, once all of the figures are displayed, they will represent the individual skills of each maker and, as a whole, will become a piece of folk art in its own right.

I see the museum as filling a yawning gap within the cultural landscape of this country, and as a means for people from all walks of life to gain knowledge, and a deeper understanding, of our unique folk culture.