A disused Argos shop, one plug socket, gaffer tape, cable ties, string, bamboo, a lot of imagination and cooperation, led to over 1800 visitors enjoying the show over a fortnight in June. This interview with exhibition curator Tom Goskar explains how it happened.
How did the idea for an exhibition on the history of Golowan come about?
Since moving to Penzance, I have always been fascinated by the traditions and customs of this part of the far west of Cornwall. At Midsummer the Golowan festival is a huge part of the town’s life. For a week there is music and dancing around the town. On St John’s Eve (23rd June) there is a torchlit procession led by musicians and an hobby horse (‘obby ‘oss).
The following day there is a fireworks display and more antics from the ‘oss. The festivities culminate at the weekend with Mazey Day and Quay Fair Day. On the former, huge processions of costumed locals make their way through the principle streets, often supporting large sculptures made from withies (thin willow branches) and tissue paper. There is dancing in the streets with long chains of people hand-in-hand weaving in and out, and performers line the streets. Tens of thousands of people attend. On Quay Fair Day, the celebrations move towards the town’s quayside where there is a market, food stalls, and lots of folk music.
What experiences did the townspeople have? What were the stories? If the celebrations were as riotous as the sources indicated, surely some of those stories must have been recorded. I became completely hooked.
Golowan as we know it today was created in 1991. It revived many historical traditions practiced in the town up to the late 19th century. Even the word ‘Golowan’ is very old – it’s the Cornish language (Kernewek) word meaning ‘Feast of St John’. I became fascinated with these origins and wanted to know more.
The ‘usual’ Cornish history books didn’t seem to have much information about how Midsummer was celebrated in Penzance. Much of it was repeated from book to book. It was all a bit dry. What experiences did the townspeople have? What were the stories? If the celebrations were as riotous as the sources indicated, surely some of those stories must have been recorded. I became completely hooked when I decided to start researching Penzance’s Midsummer celebrations using the British Newspaper Archive.
Monster bonfires on the beach, blazing fires in the streets, secret committees organising fireworks, tar barrels and musicians, angry mayors, accidents, dancing.
The stories just fell from the pages of papers such as The Cornish Telegraph, The Cornishman, and The Royal Cornwall Gazette. Monster bonfires on the beach, blazing fires in the streets, secret committees organising fireworks, tar barrels and musicians, angry mayors, accidents, dancing, and so much more. Here were the stories that I was looking for, and I really wanted the people of Penzance to be able to know them.
The Golowan festival team were equally as fascinated when I pitched the idea of a pop-up museum. This was just before the pandemic, which caused the festival to be cancelled in 2020. With the relaxing of lockdown rules in 2021, but not enough to return the town to it’s packed streets, it seemed like the best time to create the exhibition, celebrating its ancient past as well as 30 years of Golowan’s revival.
What were your main concerns when planning the pop-up exhibition?
Putting together an exhibition during a global pandemic was always going to be tricky. Aside from finding a suitable venue which had plenty of space for a one-way system with decent ventilation, creating an exhibition with objects from past festivals while we couldn’t visit people in their homes meant that selecting items for display was going to have to be last-minute. Once the venue had been secured, decisions on display and mounting would have to be done on the gallery floor.
The former Argos store ticked all the boxes – level access, great space, big doors at the front with a large rear door to ensure good airflow, windowless, blank white walls, plenty of hanging points and a plain concrete floor.
We looked at several venues, and they all had issues ranging from being far too expensive through to ones where not enough windows would open or there was no level access. At one point it looked like it wouldn’t be possible to find the right venue at all. Then we were offered a huge potential venue by Penzance’s Wharfside Shopping Centre. The former Argos store ticked all the boxes – level access, great space, big doors at the front with a large rear door to ensure good airflow, windowless, blank white walls, plenty of hanging points and a plain concrete floor.
The only major drawback was that the power distribution had not been reconnected since the Argos fittings had been removed. This is quite normal in large retail units to keep costs down whilst vacant. Two 1kW halogen floodlights provided basic safety lighting but the rear of the unit remained quite dark. Two 13A sockets (supplied by a 16A cable) were the only available power outlets, used for the roller blind, and yes, the floodlights.
We were able to work with the Golowan team to source LED floodlights, and work with an electrician to ensure that we kept to our power ‘budget’ and that all of the cabling was safe.
This would have to be sufficient to light 360 square metres of exhibition space, with two projectors and two laptops. As well as lighting for the retail area. So power was definitely a concern.
We were able to work with the Golowan team to source LED floodlights, and work with an electrician to ensure that we kept to our power ‘budget’ and that all of the cabling was safe. The Director of Golowan and I actually hung the lights ourselves, so it was really hands-on.
The dusty concrete floor provided issues when the colourful banners started arriving, which we solved by using (reused) agricultural plastic sheeting to create ‘clean’ areas for handling fabrics and objects.
We decided to try 3M Command Strips and they worked perfectly so long as we cleaned the walls with microfibre cloths and rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol first.
The walls consisted of whitewashed breeze blocks, which we weren’t allowed to drill into. The 23 A0 printed panels had to be attached with a removable adhesive or use freestanding holders such as easels. Easels would have impeded visitor flow (the health and safety consultant defined this) and would have added to the expense. We decided to try 3M Command Strips and they worked perfectly so long as we cleaned the walls with microfibre cloths and rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol first. Lots of masking tape and help from designer Paul Betowski of Design By Paul meant that they went up, stayed up, and looked great.
When someone brings in a 15kg horse skull on a pole (Penglaz, the Penzance ‘obby ‘oss) and asks you how you will be displaying it, you have to think quickly.
There were many further concerns, especially as the objects came in. What was relevant, and how would we display them? We had no cabinets and no specialist mounting materials as we didn’t know exactly what we would be displaying. When someone brings in a 15kg horse skull on a pole (Penglaz, the Penzance ‘obby ‘oss) and asks you how you will be displaying it, you have to think quickly.
I wasn’t sure if we would get enough object loans to fill the space. Luckily a local collector, Terry Sampson, contributed a huge quantity from his personal collection of Golowan memorabilia. He had even made free-standing display boards featuring the front covers of every printed programme since 1991, the festivities’ revival year. He really helped to make the modern-day Golowan section a success. His Golowan t-shirt collection helped to bring even more colour to the space, and together with Lucy’s famous banners, they really helped create a festival feel, while making the most of the vertical space we had to play with.
Through judicious use of trestle tables, musical instrument stands, string, cable ties, nylon paracord, clothes hangers, wooden pallets, scaffolding bars, and a deconstructed scaffolding tower, we managed to pull it off with practical help from Terry, Paul and the Golowan team.
The big worry about having enough content to fill a 360m² grey and white box with 5m high ceilings had been vanquished.
How would you describe the curatorial style you adopted, what outcome was most important to you?
I really wanted the exhibition to have a folk museum feel that was both formal and informal, and one that invoked a real sense of the community festival that the people of Penzance love. Through suspending hundreds of colourful banners from the ceiling, along with the Golowan team we created the ‘Golowan vibe’, whilst at the same time providing visitors with the opportunity to spot ones that they helped to make or design. Most of the banners had some community input––they all tell their own stories.
I took inspiration from the visual language of previous Golowan Festivals and marketing material, and iterated several design ideas that would fit an exhibition format. Other aesthetic ideas were sparked from general museum signage and display design as well as traditional and contemporary graphic design.Paul Betowski, Design by Paul who designed the Golowan exhibition graphics
The large interpretation panels provided a chance to tell the story of Golowan’s ancient roots. I began by setting the celebration of the Feast of St John in its wider European context (celebrations with some similar characteristics are still celebrated in many countries across the continent), and split them into themes drawn from the stories discovered in the 19th-century newspapers.
Due to limited contemporary imagery I used Creative Commons licensed photographs of similar celebrations as well as photos of the ‘traditional’ elements of the modern Golowan festival from our own collections to illustrate the text. Paul, our designer, wove in the serpent used in the Golowan logo in and out of panels where images were difficult to source helping to break up the words, and bring a little of the serpent (hand-in-hand) dancing from the streets to the exhibition.
I really wanted people to make a deeper connection with the Midsummer celebrations to provide inspiration for Golowan’s future.
I tried to use as many original quotes from the newspapers as I could, so that many of the words were those of the townspeople themselves. I really wanted people to make a deeper connection with the Midsummer celebrations to provide inspiration for Golowan’s future. Using as much original material as I could fit (in a readable size font) seemed like the best way to do this.
The Golowan team provided a bridge between myself and the film producer Barbara Santi who created a documentary celebrating the festival since its revival in 1991. Close cooperation through the Golowan Festival team ensured we were able to include many of the objects glimpsed in original footage on display.
The banners were made by the people of Penzance and they could come and spot them, the panels explained the deeper roots and why it all died out, the film stirred up memories, and the objects, displayed as a fabulous and colourful stage set, celebrated everything Golowan, and the people who love the festival and have took part. That the exhibition did all of this, bound it all together, and filled people with joy (as well as learning new things) was deeply important to me.
Can you share any anecdotes or stories of how the exhibition was received?
As well as providing a formal service to Golowan CIC, I also offered to do some volunteer stewarding. I could be the curator in disguise. As such I learned a lot about how well the exhibition was received.
I’d been told that Golowan was all made up.Visitor comment in conversation with Tom Goskar while stewarding the exhibition.
Whilst welcoming visitors I always offered to answer any questions that might arise during their visit. A lady approached me, rather cautiously, and said, “It was fascinating. So interesting. I had no idea. I’d been told that Golowan was all made up, and none of what they said about customs was real.” I asked where she had heard this, and she replied that the minister of her chapel had told her and the entire congregation but he had now passed away. I would love to have given him a tour.
Another lady asked me if the ‘serpent dance’ (the hand-in-hand dancing through the streets) had always been known by this name. She stated that “according to the Bible, serpents and anything associated them are evil”. I explained that this was a new, and likely innocent name, for what used to be called ‘thread-the-needle’. I tried to reassure her that there was no evil in the dance, and that serpents and the Christianity in general were not so incompatible. She was surprised when I explained about the West Gallery tradition (a band and/or choir providing music in churches before organs were widespread) where one popular bass instrument, an ancestor of the tuba, was known as a ‘serpent‘. She seemed a little reassured.
There were many comments, most of them favourable:
I was blown away by this exhibition which is completely fabulous. It’s so thorough and comprehensive and contains all the background on Golowan that I’ve always wanted to know.Anonymous visitor comment from the (Covid-safe) comments slips
It’s an informative, detailed, sometimes funny look at our favourite festival and a must view event for locals and visitors alike’Anonymous visitor comment from the (Covid-safe) comments slips
In the two weeks that the exhibition was open, we had 1,822 visitors through the doors. Given the limit of 18 people and the pandemic, we were very happy that so many people came to see it.
What advice would you give to anyone contemplating a similar pop-up exhibition?
Every pop-up museum or exhibition will have unique challenges. The more you do the more you learn for the next one. Finding a venue can be hard, but it’s important to view as many options as you can.
Inevitably you will have to arrive at a compromise as empty shops or industrial units are not museums or galleries.
Make a list of your requirements first. Top of the list should be that your venue should be in a location with good footfall, it should be dry, and it should be lockable. Ideally there should be a small storage space for staff and volunteer belongings, and a toilet.
Inevitably you will have to arrive at a compromise as empty shops or industrial units are not museums or galleries. They probably won’t have good lighting, and since what you are doing is temporary, you may not be able to use screws or nails on the walls. There may not be enough electrical sockets.
The areas we compromised on were electrical supply (mitigated by purchasing reusable LED floodlights), toilet (negotiated with café next door), and storage area (we used boxes underneath the welcome tables).
Level access to a venue is essential for visitors with different mobility requirements. It also helps you with load-in and out.
If things need to go on the walls are they smooth enough for removable adhesive strips? If they are, try Command Strips for foam or similar density panels. We were able to remove them cleanly without loss of paint.
Unless you have the luxury of using decent museum-grade cases and have good security, don’t display anything fragile or valuable in the exhibition.
Level access to a venue is essential for visitors with different mobility requirements. It also helps you with load-in and out. Make sure that you involve an electrician to check the power outlets and that they can provide enough for your needs.
Each panel was also numbered and titled clearly so that the exhibition can be reused many times in the future.
Get a good group of volunteers together and have a formal induction for them, to include the operation of safety equipment. Make sure a member of staff is supervising each day, including opening and closing.
Try to make your panels in such a way that they can be reused. Temporary exhibitions should be reusable. In the Ancient Roots section of our exhibition, none of the 23 A0 panels contained any references to 2021 or 30 years of the modern festival. Each panel was also numbered and titled clearly so that the exhibition can be reused many times in the future.
Once your foam panels reach the end of their lives, they can be recycled. Ours were printed by Headland Printers in Penzance who have offered to recycle them when the time comes.
We had four giant sail flags printed to help raise awareness of the exhibition. They looked great and worked a treat. Be aware that the bases of these flags are generally filled with water to weigh them down and are quite heavy to move. Bear this in mind if volunteers will be moving them to and from their positions on opening and closing.
Involve a Morris dancing side if you can – they know how to draw a crowd of prospective visitors!
Explore our gallery of photos from the Golowan pop-up exhibition over on Flickr.