Amgueddfa Cymru


The launch of the ‘Kids in Museums’ manifesto with the Minister for Culture and Sport John Griffiths and Children’s Commissioner Keith Towler took place at National Museum Cardiff this morning. It was a great event and good to see so many young people involved and supporting this project.

A few weeks ago Maria Miller, the English Culture Secretary, made a speech in which she justified the arts and culture on economic grounds. I was glad to hear John Griffiths challenge this reductionist and limited perspective, by emphasising the social and educational value of museums. We are the largest provider of learning outside the classroom in Wales, and play a key role in many communities across the nation.

Amgueddfa Cymru supports the Kids in Museums Manifesto which pledges to work towards putting the twenty points – from inviting teenagers to hang out at museums to creating a comfortable safe place for children and families – into practice. There is a Welsh language version of the manifesto, produced with support from the Welsh Government.

Something that’s fast becoming a star attraction at National Museum Cardiff is a beautiful bronze sculpture of a galloping horse by the famous 19th century French Impressionist, Edgar Degas. The work, which has found a permanent home alongside other works here, has been accepted in lieu of inheritance tax from the estate of the artist, Lucian Freud, who died in 2011, and allocated permanently to Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum of Wales. The sculpture will be a major addition to our collection, of which we can all be proud.

Last weekend was particularly busy for National Museum Cardiff. We joined up with the BBC and a host of wildlife partners to host the ‘Summer of Wildlife’, a fun day of discovering more about our wildlife and we also supported the Welsh language festival Tafwyl in the grounds of Cardiff Castle with a chance for visitors to see the clogmaker from St Fagans and experience some of our natural history and art collections on our stand. Tafwyl Festival helps Welsh language thrive in the capital and we were more than happy to support this successful event.

At the end of May Amgueddfa Cymru had a very successful presence at both the Urdd Eisteddfod and the Hay Festival.

Over 5000 people attended our stand at the Urdd Eisteddfod in Boncath, north Pembrokeshire, where the focus was on the National Wool Museum, being just half an hour away from the Maes. John Griffiths, Minister for Culture and Sport visited the stand and Stephen Crabb MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire really got stuck into the knitting with the giant knitting needle! At the GwyddonLe science pavilion there was an opportunity to learn more about the archaeology of the Preseli Mountains and the Bluestones with Ken Brassil.

At the Hay Festival, we shared a stand with Cadw, the Royal Commission and the Historical Houses Association under the branding History Wales. We ran a number of activities for children during the week highlighting in particular the 30th birthday of Big Pit: National Coal Museum and craft work from St Fagans. The stand was extremely busy, and it was a great opportunity to work with partner organisations to promote Welsh History. John Griffiths, Minister for Culture and Sport, visited the stand to launch the latest edition of Big Pit’s people’s history magazine, Glo, which was dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Big Pit as a museum.

Our new children’s book ‘Albie the Adventurer: Dinosaur in the Forest’ was launched officially at the festival in an interactive session with children. The story is by Grace Todd, and is based on a workshop run for Foundation Phase children in the Clore Discovery Gallery at National Museum Cardiff, where Albie discovers the sights and sounds of the prehistoric forest! I’m sure the book will charm children and grown-ups alike!

One event which I really enjoyed a few weeks ago was the National Theatre Wales’ production ‘Praxis Makes Perfect’. It was an immersive gig imagining the life of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the millionaire Italian communist who was at the heart of many of the most extraordinary events of the twentieth century. I thoroughly enjoyed it and the show will be going on tour to festivals this summer. I’d definitely recommend! And on the subject of things Italian, I have also been reading The Dark Philosophers by Gwyn Thomas, a Library of Wales publication, about a group of men who meet in an Italian café in an industrial community in the period around World War II. For me, Gwyn Thomas is a real discovery, a powerful writer with (is it just my imagination?) just a touch of Damon Runyon?

It’s May already and I must apologise for my lack of blog posts recently. It’s been a busy time for Amgueddfa Cymru.

I’m delighted that we have ended the year with another set of strong visitor figures attracting 1,745,315 visitors, exceeding 1.7m visitors for the first time ever. In 2012, we celebrated 1.69 million visits as the highest total ever recorded since free entry was introduced in April 2001, and this year we had an extra 55,289 visitors compared to the previous year of year, up by 3.27%.

Amgueddfa Cymru has now achieved record visitor figures for two consecutive years and I am delighted that we’ve succeeded in breaking yet another record this year, which is testimony to the quality of the service delivered by the Museums and the true value of the Welsh Government’s free entry policy.

It’s been a challenging time for the organisation. The current financial climate poses unprecedented challenges for every public sector organisation in Wales and Amgueddfa Cymru is no exception. Amgueddfa Cymru is facing a reduced budget and must find £2.5m in savings over the next three years. We have recently undertaken a period of consultation with staff and partners regarding a proposed new structure for the organisation which will be announced shortly. I’m very grateful for the patience and cooperation of Amgueddfa Cymru staff during this difficult period.

The proposed changes will not affect the day-to-day operations of the seven national museums across Wales. In finding savings, we have given priority to sustaining services for users. Amgueddfa Cymru will continue to offer visitors quality experiences at each of its sites.

Since I last posted on my blog, a new Culture & Sports Minister has been appointed in the Welsh Government, John Griffiths AM whom I had the pleasure of meeting recently. I am very grateful for the support and work of the previous Heritage Minister Mr Huw Lewis over the past few years and I’m really looking forward to working with Mr Griffiths.

It seems like a long time ago now but I was in Chongqing in China at the beginning of March for the opening of our Amgueddfa Cymru exhibition Wales: Land of the Red Dragon at the China Three Gorges Museum. Promoting Wales as a contemporary nation through international work is one of our main priorities and this partnership is an excellent way to give the 30 million people living in the Chongqing region the chance to learn more about Wales’ rich and unique assets in culture, history and the environment.

I recently bought a copy of E.P. Thompson’s William Morris: From Romantic to Revolutionary. It is a few years since I last read anything by E.P. Thompson, and his Customs in Common has long been on my list of future reads. I found the postscript to the 1976 edition, in which he discusses Morris’s place in the history of communism, moving because of the very personal way in which Thompson refers to his own thinking on this subject.


Last week, I was delighted to attend the relaunch of the hugely successful Sharing Treasures by Huw Lewis, our Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage.

Under the initial scheme, local museums were able to apply for grants to put on exhibitions and raise gallery standards in order to be able to borrow national collections from Amgueddfa Cymru for display. Though we remain an integral partner, the scheme has now been extended to allow libraries and archives to also borrow items from the national collections. It also allows museums to apply for grants to develop touring exhibitions as well as apply for a grant more than once so that they can develop successful projects. Importantly, financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund has also been secured for 2012/13 to extend the parameters of the initiative. Many people attended, and we had an interesting day of discussions. I was asked to say a few words, and was glad that I was able to express how important I believe the scheme to be. We as national organizations do not own the national collections, but simply hold them in trust for the people of Wales. We have an ethical responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to them, and this scheme allows us to give more people the opportunity to engage with the national collections.

This ties in nicely with a meeting I attended yesterday - the AHRC Museum Ethics Network Workshop. This was the first of five such workshops, one of which will be held in Cardiff. Yesterday's was held at Leicester at the School of Museum Studies at the University. Many interesting presentations were given about the link between ethics and social justice, and the failure of some museum organisations in the UK to think of ethics in those terms. It opened up the prospect of UK museums rethinking their ethical frameworks with a view of putting more emphasis on public engagement. We are lucky to have such a resource as the School of Museum Studies in the UK. They provide intellectual rigour to museum practice that may otherwise not be addressed.

One other event I wanted to mention was the Great British Art Debate which took place on Saturday. It marked the end of a three-year programme which has involved four gallery organizations across England (Tate Britain, Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, Norfolk Museum and Archaeology Service and Museums Sheffield) working together to explore questions about nationhood, regionalism and artistic identity today through a series of exhibitions and events. The speakers were almost all from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or the English regions. Some speakers strongly challenged the basis for the project as a whole. Indeed, two Scottish speakers challenged the concept of Britishness and, by implication, the authenticity of the name of Tate Britain in the context and the reality of devolution. The speaker from Northern Ireland was equally critical, saying that English art institutions have collected very little art produced by Northern Irish artists who stayed in Belfast during the troubles. They prefer instead to collect work by international artists who may have briefly visited Northern Ireland during that time. Indeed, overall, the day questioned many of the premises on which the project was based. It left me with the sense that there was a growing separation within the cultural world between institutions based in London and the rest of the UK. This may well reflect the realities of devolution.

Yesterday, I returned from China having spent just under a week in Chongqing and Beijing. Though it wasn't my first visit to China, it was my first as Director General of Amgueddfa Cymru. My visit was timed to coincide with the First Minister's visit to China, and I was part of a small cultural delegation which included Rebecca Matthews, Director of the British Council in Wales. It was an excellent opportunity to meet old friends in China and to make new ones, cementing the growing relationship between both countries. Welsh Government staff and British Council staff had worked hard on the programme, and I am extremely grateful for their support in making all the arrangements.

Having hosted the successful Dazu Rock Carvings exhibition here in Cardiff earlier this year, much of my discussions in Chongqing focused on delivering an exhibition from Wales to China in 2013. There is a great deal of interest in China about Wales's culture and history, and it will be an excellent opportunity for us to celebrate our heritage internationally. Three staff members are going to Chongqing in early November to progress these discussions, and though plans are an early stage, there is a great deal of excitement about the proposed exhibition already.

I had a number of interesting meetings during my trip. Everyone was extremely welcoming, and there were discussions about exchanging not only objects but also sharing expertise through a series of staff exchanges. China is investing a great deal in Museums at present, and many new Museums are being built. There is therefore a need for more curators and conservators, and sharing skills with international partners is important in order to be able to achieve this.

Amgueddfa Cymru has a MoU with the Three Gorges Museum in Chongqing, and it was fantastic to be able to visit the museum. We presented as a gift to the museum a ceramic teapot by Walter Keeler, and the First Minister was present. We had a fascinating discussion over lunch with the Director and his staff, where we compared the history of Western socialism in the UK in the post war period with Chinese socialism.

During all of our meetings with senior politicians and officials in both Chongqing and Beijing, all hosts emphasised the importance of culture and education as a basis for a strong relationship between Wales and China. This provides a number of opportunities for Wales, but also provides a challenge in this economic climate as funding will be needed to meet expectations!

I have just returned from a very interesting trip to Stockholm, as part of our development of the Making History project at St Fagans. Along with other colleagues from Amgueddfa Cymru, we went over to look at museums that may offer some inspiration for the redevelopment. Our Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage - Huw Lewis - was in Stockholm at the same time, and joined us in looking at some of the museums.

At Skansen Museum we were met by John Brattmyhr (Director) and Kerstin Holm Soderkvist (Learning Officer). We learnt about how they'd gone about trying to seek more corporate sponsorship and also how they've expanded their catering facilities. This is a challenge we face at St Fagans! I was greatly impressed by the scale of the site, and the fact that they have more than 30 staff looking after the programme of events and educational services that are run at the museum.

We then went on to Vasa Museum. It has a huge impact when you see it for the first time, and has an interesting history. It is a ship that sank on its maiden voyage in Stockholm harbour. It displays some of the personal possessions that were recovered as well as some of the skeletons. The way they are displayed allow for more very powerful personal stories to be told. They have even facially reconstructed some of the skeletons, which is particularly striking. To copy with the fact that they receive double their anticipated visitors, a new entrance is being build. A similar challenge once again for us at St Fagans!

From a personal perspective, I was grateful that my vegan diet was catered for without any problem. I thought that the dinner arranged by the British Embassy in an Italian restaurant might have proved particularly difficult but the chef cooked me a lovely vegan dish. I became vegan for health reasons rather than as a conscious decision, but I must admit that I feel so much better for it. And I'm trying some new and interesting dishes as a result!