The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Museum crawl III - From museum crawlers to ghost walkers

Anyone who has been to Leicester Museums recently - whether in person or to their website - can hardly miss the milking of ghosts for all they are worth by Leicester City Council. Obviously seizing on a money making initiative (and who can blame them really) they are currently charging £35 to go and sit in a dark museum with the hope of spotting some paranormal activity (and anyone who knows anything about the paranormal is that 'they' are usually very choosy about whom they appear to). I may be rather cynical about it, but I must confess to having a fascination with ghosts, particuarly when I was younger when I spent long hours reading about haunted royal castles and the Borley Rectory. As much as I feel most of it is made up, it cannot be denied that some buildings, particularly older ones, often have strange atmospheres that cannot always be accounted for. After the Belgrave Hall visit it therefore seemed right that we should make the next 'museum crawl' a ghost walk around Leicester city centre, held as part of the Castle Park festival on Monday bank holiday.

It was a slightly chilly Monday night as we gathered in Twilight next to the Castle Yard to begin the tour (the evening had begun in the Orange Tree for pre-tour fortification). I forget the name of our guide but she was a good storyteller, having that very slow, patient way of speaking which is actually quite spooky. We started with a tale about St Mary de Castro, built in 1107, when a cleaning lady was confronted by the ghost of a monk with a green light for a head. Why this was so was not explained, but then we did not go for explanations did we?

One thing that has always interested me, and was reinforced that evening, is that ghost stories are as much about social history as they are about frightening people. For instance, a story about a young lady who died in the 1960s running out in the road to meet her date for the night was awash with detail about the times and revealed that the Alliance and Leicester offices in that part of town used to be a knitting factory. Similarly the haunts often take place along roads and buildings that no longer exist, showing another side to the modern city and keeping alive how things used to be in the past. We learn about costume (although ghosts are always dressed in drab colours, I read somewhere this is possibly because of the huge amount of energy required to manifest they cannot extend to full colour) and the former use of houses, however macabre. One story that will stick in my mind was about the Age Concern offices near the Cathedral which used to be haunted by a pair of ghosts called Ebeneezer, a practical joker apparently, and Winifred, who entertained herself by walking through walls or vanishing in front of astonished workmen. Apparently when they were clearing out the cellar the bodies of three people were found buried under the rubbish. If this was not strange enough the guide went on to say that the building used to be inhabited by surgeons, suggesting that they were also potential body snatchers (considering there is a grave yard opposite we were meant to put two and two together). Other interesting snippets include the staggeringly wilful desecration of graveyards by city councils, in this case to build the Guildhall cafe on the site of one, which is blamed for the hauntings of the Guildhall by a white lady/monk (its those pesky monks again). Prosaic reasons are not entertained for a series of triggered burglar alarms... um could the system have been faulty? Amy was also alarmed to learn that the room where she felt chilly around the feet was the same one in which a cleaning lady had ghostly skirts brush against her. A more funny tale was the one where a cleaning lady saw a wooden chair unfold by itself and rotate in a circle silently across a wooden floor in the former museum of costume, but the ghost of a boy sobbing and crying his heart out on the stairs, found by a bemused museum assistant, was strangely touching.

After some fairly believable tales it all became a bit silly, especially with the story of Black Anna who supposedly built a tunnel all the way from her cave in Dane Hills to the castle gate with the express intention of stealing children away and skinning them. I mean how stupid to hang about in such a secluded spot, surely the city centre has more children? It proved a good legend though to ensure that children came home quickly from school and stayed out of mischief. And the monk who walks around the cathedral and supposedly falls to the ground and points at you if your number is up. Furthermore Amy and I began to question the ethics of ghost tales, after all they mainly concern death and suicide and pain and loss; it is easy to forget that these were people who had families and friends and I am not sure I would like one of my ancestors to be picked over and used as part of a tour such as this. There was something sensationalist about it, fuelled I suppose by suspicion of programmes such as Most Haunted.

However despite some developing reservations it was an entertaining evening and something different to do for a modest amount of money. I learnt some more about Leicester and there were also some real curiosities along the way, for instance why is a house on Friar Lane numbered 17 and a half? Yet again it raised more questions.... I could not help feel that most of the narratives were pretty similar to those told elsewhere with ghostly monks and headless hunchbacks being a little cliched. Why monks should be more restless than the rest of the population is also a moot point... but with all that self-denial in life (mostly) I guess they would have enough restless energy to keep fuelling themselves after death.

(Ghost tours are a regular fixture, more information presumably from the Tourist Information office in town. They cost £4. Thanks to Amy, Magnus, Angela, Mike and Naz who came along and sorry Amy for making such terrible jokes. Its my way of coping.)

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