In Devon they used to put dead cats inside a building’s walls to ward off mice, as an act of sympathetic magic.

Folklore lover Simon Costins was so intrigued by the practice that when he toured the country in a painted caravan to celebrate our folk traditions, he took a desiccated feline he’d found walled into a building in the South West with him.

“Why they didn’t try using a live one, I don’t know. You’d think it might be more effective.”

Costins also had a pair of mittens from one of the runners of the Ottery St Mary tar barrels – another idiosyncratic Devonian custom which involves men and boys running through the town’s narrow streets with burning barrels of tar on their backs.

“These were examples of things people may not be aware of being folklore. We also had horse brasses and a ghost bike.”

He made the tour to see if anyone else shared his interest in the country’s folk traditions.

Such was the response, Costins decided to set up a Museum Of British Folklore.

“It was born of frustration really, knowing how many other countries value their indigenous folk culture. It always seemed strange we didn’t have a museum of that nature when we produced so many folk customs.”

He says there is nothing kitsch about folklore. It is a living cultural history of proud communities. The events give the towns, villages and areas a chance to state their identity and, of course, have some fun.

“It is never a pastiche or capped in amber and repeated. Each community will bring something fresh. Each generation makes it fresh for themselves. If they had just been repeated and never changed, like the changing of the guard, then they would be dead.”

Folklore and photography

The key that is folk tradition and folk culture renews and regenerates. Lewes Bonfire Night is a good example, because effigies are always made relevant to the time and community.

By day, Costins is an art director. His most recent project was at Tsvetnoy department store, Moscow, where he worked on everything from media lounges to blogger forums and connecting to fashion colleges in the city.

You might expect putting together a new museum would thus be a doddle for someone with such vision.

But there are many practical considerations: does one do a new build, a refurbishment or an extension? And the logistics: rail and road links, and some existing cultural centres to share expertise – and visitors.

“We haven’t got a building yet and we obviously have to raise funds but in the meantime we are establishing relations with other institutions.

“All the time we are cutting our teeth and learning about museum practice.”

His proposal for a history of fireworks at Compton Verney Art Gallery near Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire became the exhibition Remember, Remember: A History Of Fireworks In Britain, which opened October 2011.

In February, at The Museum Of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket, Suffolk, the Museum Of British Folklore continued its collaborations. The Doc Rowe Archive: 50 Years Of Focusing On Folk celebrated the man who spent a lifetime documenting British folk customs, seasonal events, song, dance and oral history.

Costins’ third Museum Of Folklore collaboration is at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne.

Collective Observations: Folklore And Photography From Benjamin Stone To Flickr features more than a hundred photos as well as film footage on the gallery’s upper floors.

It looks at the relationship between photography and folklore.

“Photography and film are the only things we have that are evidence of these customs and the way in which they have changed and adapted over a period.

“After Doc Rowe, we started to look at Brian and Sarah Shaw. Then Homer Sykles, whose book Once A Year I’ve had for a very long time. What we began to see was how their approaches are all very different.

“It took me back to Benjamin Stone’s Festival And Customs book – and the way early photography would stop everything. Everyone had to stop what they were doing and look at the camera and freeze for that moment.

“I kept thinking that it would make a really interesting exhibition.”

To provide a counterpoint to exhibits such as original images by Benjamin Stone with handwritten notes, Costins brought in contemporary artists who have looked at that work and taken it somewhere different. He includes Flickr because were Stone alive today, he would probably be using it to document folk customs.

A highlight of the exhibition are the films by Tom Chick based on Scottish folk tales, Death In A Nut and The Fisherman’s Daughter. The latter deals with the Selkie folk – the Orcadian dialect word for seals who can transform themselves into human shapes and come on to land to find a mate.

The show, Costins believes, proves that interest in folk customs is growing. He cites Hastings’ Jack In The Green, which in 20 years has seen its visitors grow from 1,000 to 23,000 last year.

“When times are hard people look back, probably with rose-tinted glasses, but I think people will be astonished.”

  • Towner Gallery, Devonshire Park, Eastbourne, Saturday, October 13, to Sunday, January 13. Free, open Tuesday to Sunday and bank holidays from 10am to 5pm. Call 01323 434670