History - Very superstitious

20th January 2012 at 00:00
Two charming exhibitions explore faith, hope and chance

The Wellcome Collection deftly sums up two current exhibitions as groups of supernatural "thank yous" and "pleases".

Infinitas Gracias: Mexican Miracle Paintings focuses on the devout practice in Mexico of presenting offerings at the shrines of selected saints for help and divine intervention at times of crisis. These range from naive paintings executed on wood and slate to home-made captioned drawings on paper and card, expressing gratitude to the saint for their assistance for anything from bouts of illness to examinations.

Each of the paintings depicts a moment of crisis ranging from the catastrophic (rail accidents, wrongful arrests and just-averted public executions) to the mundane. There is Juan Garcia's thanks to St Francis in 1861 after being "rescued" from a near lapse into unconsciousness while bathing. There is also an extraordinary display of milagritos (little miracles): simple tin badges depicting everything from feet to lorries and giving thanks for things as diverse as injured limbs healed and long journeys survived.

These segue neatly into the "please" exhibition - Charmed Life, curated by artist Felicity Powell - which features 400 charms and talismans collected by amateur folklorist Edward Lovett during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Both shows would make great trips for primary pupils. Preparation could include questions on whether they or their families have sought supernatural support or solace for troubles in their lives. Have they ever given thanks to "higher forces" for a disaster averted or felt that the presence of some treasured object has brought good fortune or provided protection during an ordeal?

They will be fascinated by some of the strange objects that ordinary people carried around as protection. While carved shells, coral and stones pierced with holes may make some sense, what will they make of the preserved rabbit's tongue carried for decades as a charm against poverty?

Lovett compiled a map of 1900s London showing the locations of shops selling blue beads, deemed necessary at the time to defend children from bronchitis. Such folk faith is just three generations old and I suspect today's children would enjoy investigating their family traditions in this way - great stuff for a history or RE project.

Jerome Monahan is a freelance journalist and teacher. Both exhibitions are free and are at the Wellcome Collection, London, until 26 February

What else?

For an enquiry-based lesson about belief and superstition, try jessiejump's PowerPoint presentation.

Consider the effect of superstitions on health in history with Miss Klunder's medieval medicine tutorial.

Explore evidence of local beliefs and traditions through QCDA_Resources' lesson plans.

In the forums

A teacher is looking for ideas for human rights activities - can you help?

Share ideas for setting up a school history club.

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