If you are a regular visitor to St Fagans you may have noticed:
a. The big red crane
b. the play area has gone.
The big red crane is obviously temporary as all the building work goes on for the new and improved St Fagans, and luckily the lack of a play area is also temporary as we are BUILDING A NEW ONE! not only that we are building a new one with Nils Norman - an artist who has been working extensively around play for a number of years.
Although Nils has been on board for a good few months now (with support from Arts Council Wales and the Heritage Lottery Fund), it has taken a while for the project to get going as there is so much organising to do beforehand!
We also needed to appoint two supporting artists to work on the project with Nils which we did at the end of last year. These support artists will be helping with research as well as community engagement. We want the play are to be unique, bespoke to St Fagans, accessible to all ages and abilities, create links with the collections, is fun and is also a work of art. To do this the artists will be undertaking lots of research - looking through our archive and stores, as well as holding workshops for community groups and visitors into what kind of play area they would like to see.
They are currently at the research stage which will take a few months, Nils will then provide some drawings, we will *all* have a look at them and report back and then all going to plan the actual construction will start towards the end of this year, with a finished play area for spring next year! (don't hold me to those dates)
If you have any ideas, or if you have seen some great play areas, please let me know. This is such an exciting project which I will keep you updated on as it progresses. Next post, i'll introduce you to our supporting artists.
For more information about Nils Norman's work, visit his website
A belated happy New Year to you all! In the weeks since I posted my last co-curation update, we’ve been on the road again co-producing audio-visual content for the Making History project. Working with various community groups and individuals, we've been creating short films based on the collections selected for display. These films will form part of the interpretation in the new galleries. Here's a quick overview of what we've been up to.
First World War
In December, I was invited behind the wired walls of Maindy Barracks to interview two serving members of 3rd Battalion The Royal Welsh. One of the new galleries will include a display about the First World War, focusing on voluntary action, healing and remembrance. My brief was to capture a glimpse into Army life today and to record contemporary responses to century-old collections. Inevitably, the interviews touched on difficult subjects – separation, injury and death. Hearing first-hand testimony from the soldiers was a fascinating experience. It's going to be a challenge to combine and edit the interviews into a three minute film.
Earlier this month, we shifted our attention to the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike. Working with colleagues from Big Pit National Coal Museum, we asked a group of Youth Ambassadors from Blaenavon to interview individuals who were involved in the Strike.
After a morning learning about the ethics and techniques of oral history, the young people formulated their own questions and spent the afternoon recording the interviews. We were conscious of the need to represent a diverse range of experiences; to give the young people the opportunity to challenge their preconceptions. With this in mind, we invited an ex-police officer to join the workshop, as well as former miners and others affected by the dispute.
You’ll have to wait until the new galleries open to see the results! Needless to say, the Young Ambassadors were natural interviewers – curious, probing and balanced. When asked to reflect on the process, Owen from Blaenavon said he'd been on “an extreme historical adventure”. I'll second that.
The work with 3rd Battalion The Royal Welsh is supported by the Armed Forces Community Covenant Grant Scheme.
This post is a synopsis of a Behind the Scenes event I presented on September 30th 2014. It consisted of looking at a “snapshot” of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales’ activities during the WWI period. Information was obtained through scanning our scrap books, publication archives and photographic collections for the years 1914 to 1918 and extracting interesting items of news concerning staff and exhibitions.
However, the first thing I did was to warn everyone that in 1914 this is what we looked like….
We still existed of course, established by Royal Charter back in 1907 but, without a finished building to call our own.
Therefore, during this time while construction of the building was in progress, administration was carried out in offices close by at Park Place and the Kingsway area while exhibitions were held in temporary galleries next door in City Hall.
I centred the staff news on three people...
Archibald H. Lee, the Museum Secretary, who saw active military service and was decorated with the Military Cross after fighting at Gaza. He returned to work after the war and remained Museum Secretary for 44 years, finally retiring in 1953. He appears in many photographs of special events and royal visits over the years.
Cyril Mortimer Green, who had been appointed as Botanical Assistant in 1914, but never got to take up his post. He held a Commission in the 3rd Royal Sussex Regiment, went abroad to fight early on in the war and was eventually killed on active duty in November 1917.
His death is all the more poignant because, not only did never take up his position at Museum, his brother Hugh Mortimer Green had also been killed on active duty in 1915.
Click the link below and scroll down for more information on Cyril and his brother.
Eleanor Vachell, spirited and outstanding amateur botanist who stepped in to take charge of the botany collections, while Cyril Mortimer Green was absent on military duty. She did this, with the help of pupils from Cardiff High School for Girls, whilst also supporting the war effort as one of the ‘Committee Ladies of the Auxiliary Workers Territorial Forces Nursing Association’ at the hospital set up in Howard Gardens, working as both nurse and librarian.
Eleanor was the daughter of Charles Tanfield Vachell [1848-1914], a member of the Cardiff Naturalists Society, serving as its secretary and president for many years, he was also behind the creation of the Cardiff Municipal Museum and was a member of the National Museum Wales council.
Eleanor compiled, with her father, the Vachell herbarium that contains 6,705 dried specimens and is one of the most complete herbaria ever collected by a private individual. This is now held here at the Museum along with a very large collection of their own personal library on British floras.
I also looked at the problems faced in the construction of the building due to a lack of basic materials that had been re-allocated for the war effort. The progress must have been excruciatingly slow and all material orders had to apply via license applications to The Ministry of Munitions and the Report for 1917/18 it is stated that work was suspended completely for a time…
Unfortunately it has become necessary to suspend work on the New Building, and an agreement terminating the contract has been entered into with the builders, Messrs J. Willcock & Son. The roof had already been completed and the windows have been filled with oiled canvas so that the structure is now weather proof… Some of the rooms in the New Building are already in use for storage of specimens. NMW Annual Report p. 9
One of the most enjoyable parts of researching this talk was looking at the exhibitions that were held through the war years and there were plenty of them! Because even though the country was at war, the Museum still had an obligation to the public to carry on programming exhibitions and events. Here are just a few of the many exhibitions held at City Hall and for which we hold the original catalogues...
Turner's Welsh Drawings
Open from Oct 26th 1914 to Jan 30th 1915 and visited by over 8,000 people
Exhibition of Modern Belgian Art
Held in 1915 from March 17th to April 15th….visited by over 6,000 people.
Exhibition of Topographical Prints and Engravings
An exhibition of Prints and Engravings of places in Wales was opened on July 27th 1915 and closed on October 30th The number of visitors to the exhibition was in excess of 7,000.
Lovett Collection of Toys
A unique collection of children’s toys and playthings lent to the Museum by Mr. Edward Lovett, of the Folklore Society. The exhibition was originally intended to close on August 16th 1915 but in view of the interest it aroused, and to give school children an opportunity of visiting it during the whole of their holidays, the date of closing was postponed to September 2nd. The total attendance was 21, 889.
I also found mention of a number of war related exhibitions held at City Hall but for which we do not hold the catalogues…
Exhibitions of Women’s War Work
A Ministry of Munitions exhibition of photographs illustrating women’s war work during February 1916
Exhibition of Allied War Photographs
An Exhibition of Allied War Photographs held in 1917 from August 4th to 20thand visited by nearly 4,000 people.
British Battle Photographs [in colour]
An exhibition lent by the Ministry of Information. This was opened in November 1918 closed on the 11th December, and visited by about 3,500 people.
I concluded the talk by showing two other WWI related items held here in the Library. The first was a volume of military portraits of soldiers from the Welsh Horse Yeomanry. This regiment did not exist before the Great War; it was formed in August 1914 under the administration of the Glamorgan Territorial Force Association and headquartered in Cardiff [Sophia Gardens]. The title page states that the album was presented to Alderman J. Robinson, who was Lord Mayor of Cardiff (1913–1914) and it was donated to the Library on the 27th April 1932 by Councillor R. G. Robinson.
The second item I showed comprised of three albums, most likely put together for promotional purposes by the Italian air craft manufacturer, The Caproni Factory. The factory was founded in 1908 [in Taliedo, near Milan] and during WWI, they developed a series of successful heavy bombers, used by the Italian, French, British and US air forces.
Officine Caproni contains photographs of large Caproni factory spaces [interiors and exteriors].
Aeroplani Caproni contains photographs of many types of Caproni aeroplanes [many with machine guns attached]
Smaller third album [blank cover] contains photographs of Caproni staff groups at work. This album also contains 5 typed sheets of paper listing the aeroplanes and listing technical information; entries are accompanied with phrases like:
Easily managed and very useful in attacking infantry
Well-armed with 2 - 4 machine guns
Purpose built for attacking enemy workshops / enemy ships
These albums were donated to the Library on 15th February 1926 by “Lord Treowen” [Major-General Ivor Herbert, 1st Lord Treowen] National Museum Wales Treasurer 1907-12, Vice President 1912-17, and President 1917-22.
More information on the Caproni Factory can be found here:
The last item I showed was one of our scrapbooks covering the WWI period. These articles in particular, paint a vivid picture of an exceptional and turbulent period in the history of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.
Following on from Sioned’s blog about our work with Mat Fraser in 2014 and the anonymous ‘invalid chair’ she found in the collection, in this blog I’ll be discussing another object which featured in Mat’s performance – an 18th century woollen suit from the Llantrisant area.
Unlike most of the disability-related collections in the Museum, the suit in question comes with a personal story and a file bulging with snippets from local history books. Worn by Hopkin Hopkins – better known as ‘Hopcyn Bach’ [Little Hopcyn] – the frock coat and matching breeches are among the oldest items of clothing in the collection. They were acquired by the Museum in 1920, before it was common practice for curators to document their reasons for accepting artefacts into the collection.
Hopkin Hopkins (1737 - 54) was born with a growth restricting condition. His physical appearance became a source of income for his family. It may seem repugnant to us today, but at the age of 14 he was taken to London by his parents and shown publically for money. Billed as “the wonderful and surprising Little Welchman”, his perceived ‘freakishness’ was a source of entertainment in polite society. In 1751, Hopkin was presented to the Royal Family who gave him a gold watch, an annual pension and ten guineas for each appearance he made at Court.
In the same year, he was also ‘on display’ in Bristol. This vivid account of the visit is taken from a letter sent by John Browning in September 1751:
I am just returned from Bristol where I have seen an extraordinary young man, whose case is very surprising; he is shewn publicly for money, and therefore I send you the printed bill, which is given about to bring company… I went myself to view and examine this extraordinary, and surprising but melancholy subject; a lad entering the 15th year of his age, whose stature is no more than 2 feet and 7 inches, and weight 13 pound, labouring under all the miserable and calamities of old age, being weak and emaciated, his eyes dim, his hearing very bad, his countenance fallen, his voice very low and hollow; his head hanging down before, so that his chin touches his breast, consequently his shoulders are raised and his back rounded not unlike a hump-back, he is weak that he cannot stand without support. [Letter from John Browning to Henry Baker, 12 September 1751. Quoted in Sem Phillips, The History of the Borough of Llantrisant, 1866.]
How did Hopkin feel about being an object of curiosity? We simply don’t know. Although we have numerous descriptions of his body, his voice is missing from the narrative.
With this in mind, I revisited some objects in the collection at St Fagans which made an appearance on the Welsh Millennium Centre stage last year. These objects had been selected by Mat Fraser to be used in his keynote address at the Museums Association Conference in Cardiff, October 2014. Mat’s ground-breaking performance, Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability was kept in a Box looked at museum collections and how we should reassess the ways we portray - or as in most cases - don’t portray disability.
One of the objects selected by Mat for his show was an early wheelchair, or ‘invalid chair’ as they were once referred to. At first, I was surprised that the chair was among Mat’s choice of objects for the simple reason that there wasn’t much to say about it. I later realised of course, that it was exactly the point he wanted to make.
When we initially received the request to list potential candidates from the Museum’s collections for Mat’s performance, we knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task. The Museum’s classification didn’t include a section on disability so the only way of searching was to systematically trawl through all of the index cards. The few invalid chairs in the St Fagans collection were catalogued under the theme of transport, among various wheeled vehicles, from agricultural carts to bicycles.
The chair was collected by the Museum in 1985 from a house in Cardiff along with other various objects but there was no further information in the file about the donor or its previous owner. So I started to do a bit of research.
It seems that this type of folding invalid chair would have been manufactured from the early 1900s up until the Second World War. It has a cane seat and back, and a wooden frame which means it’s not too heavy to manoeuvre. It was designed with two small wheels at the back so that it could be wheeled up and down stairs by two people without having to lift the chair ‘saving effort and reducing the risk of accident’. 
There’s no maker’s name on the chair but it’s very similar to models manufactured by the more well-known specialist makers from London such as John Ward, Tottenham Court Road, and Carters of Great Portland Street. Their products were advertised in newspapers and could be purchased from catalogues. Their ranges included the more expensive bath chairs with leather upholstery to basic chairs such as this example, costing around £3 in the early 1900s.
However, this was still expensive for the majority of the population. In the industrial south Wales valleys during the first half of the twentieth century, many medical aid societies would help with the purchase or loan of wheelchairs and mobility aids. After the First World War the British Red Cross also lent surplus equipment such as bed rests and invalid chairs which could be hired out on a weekly basis – a service which continues today.
Without knowing why or who used this chair, we are still missing a big part of its history. Sadly, this is also true of most disability-related collections in museums. As Mat Fraser noted in his keynote address last year:
‘...but we know nothing about it, and this illustrates so many artefacts to do with disability – they have no notes. Nobody knows anything. So I suppose the only thing I would take from that is to say that when we have artefacts, we need to label them, we need to get the right people to write the right notes to accompany some of these artefacts because conjecture would be very different for every single one of us as to where this came from. And yet, none of us will never know the real truth which exemplifies and illustrates many points.’
The Concise Home Doctor Encyclopaedia of Good Health Vol 1, p.303
 Ben Curtis and Steven Thompson, ‘A Plentiful Crop of Cripples Made by All This Progress’: Artificial Limbs and Working-Class Mutualism in the South Wales Coalfield, 1890-1948’, Social History of Medicine (2014) 27 (4): 708-727.