Amgueddfa Cymru


Fern Thomas is one of the supporting artists currently working in St Fagans with Nils Norman. She has been undertaking research which feeds into the design of the play area. Fern is an artist based in Swansea and is interested in the connections between history, folk magic and ecological futures.


Sometimes a building or a place seems to hold an echo or a trace from its past. It is not something that is tangible, but rather a feeling that can be sensed or imagined into.  Many of the buildings at St Fagans possess this quality or phenomena. Alongside the age-appropriate furniture, it is perhaps the darkness and firelight of the stone cottages or farmhouses that evoke the past, showing us how the shadows fell and danced across the stone walls, how the glow of the fire would have lit up the faces of those who lived there.

I have had a similar experience to this whilst researching the archives in these recent months. As artist in residence I have had the privilege of exploring St Fagans archives and collections whilst I search for objects, patterns, customs, stories and moments from our Welsh history that could inform the design of the new play area at St Fagans by artist Nils Norman. The play area is intended to reflect the buildings and wider collections of St Fagans, offering the opportunity during this research stage to explore all aspects of the collections; from agriculture to needlework, as well as the collections associated with play.

The criteria of the brief has created an interesting framework in which I view and experience the archive, where every item or photograph I encounter invites me to question if this object from the past could be reinterpreted by Nils Norman as an object of play for children to engage with at the museum. This process has been heightened and informed by observing my one year old as he begins to interact with space, scale, and the alternative use of everyday objects!

In my research I have found myself most drawn to the photographic collections where, alongside documentation of objects on display or housed in the stores, are photographs of people captured in their everyday lives; be it collecting hay, hanging out the washing, attending agricultural shows, ‘beating the bounds’, playing at amateur dramatics, or as by-standers at a funeral or historical event. Whether posed or captured in the moment, all of these images offer a window into life unfolding.



As I continue to look through the filing cabinets image by image I discover that there are these hauntings. Much like the echo from the buildings, some of the images hold an evocative quality, a presence that can be felt that transcends the elapsed time between then and now. Young women in the field stare out at me, a crowd gathers at a mill after a fire. Then there are the incidental moments within the photographs, details that open up a set of questions. Who are those boys peeping though the back of the tent at the vegetable show? Where are the (presumed) mother and child in the corner of the image walking to?





If you are a daydreamer it is easy to wander off. Narratives unfold and questions are sparked. What are they doing there? Is that a relative of mine?  Could it be an ancestor? Surely we have the same nose. I find myself becoming aware that I am looking for my own past as I learn more about the nations collective history.


Women of the archives have become a particular fascination over the past few weeks. I have encountered them in their arduous domestic roles as butter makers, bread bakers and cow milkers. There are also photographs of women in the landscape, carrying firewood or collecting water from a well, inviting me to consider the connection to the land that was inherent in everyday life that I perhaps do not experience.


There is a section in the photographic archives dedicated to ‘Dyn hysbys’ (wise man), this would have been a local man offering remedies, healing and solutions to everyday problems. I haven’t (so far) come across a similar category for women which would perhaps be ‘gwrach’ (witch) or wise woman. As I search I begin to imagine what is not present in the archives - the undocumented actions, beliefs and role of women who were of the land; who knew how to make a healing poultice for a burn or bite (though there are some excellent hand written remedies from women across Wales collected by researcher S. Minwel Tibbott during the 1960’s), who worked with the seasons or conversed with the bees. Witches perhaps, but not witches with pointy hats (though they are present too!) or ‘hags’, but women who had a relationship with nature, and who could offer us an interesting view on our modern day disconnection from the land.


Often in the archives women are cited as ‘the wife of so and so’ or ‘gwraig’ and in my very small knowledge of Welsh language I try to make the connection between the two words ‘gwraig’ and ‘gwrach’. I discover (for myself at least) that, according to the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, in the middle ages the two words had a blurred meaning, and that in some instances ‘gwrach’ could simply mean ‘old woman, mother’ which for me suggests every woman was a sorceress, healer or worker of magic!

As I continue then to look upon every image within the filing cabinets I find myself asking; ‘where are the witches of Wales?’ and could there be value now in remembering the shared meaning in the words ‘gwraig’ and ‘gwrach’?



It’s been a few weeks since I wrote my last blog about interviewing Mel and Rhona Rees, former landlords of the Vulcan pub. Our aim with the Vulcan project over the next few months is to capture the experiences and memories of the people who knew the Vulcan, with the interviews eventually being displayed in one of the redeveloped galleries.

Since the last interview, we’ve been out again hearing about a very different aspect of the Vulcan’s story and history, the pub’s closure and the campaign to save it. The Vulcan was due to close in June 2009 to make way for a multi-story car park and flats which resulted in the formation of the ‘Save the Vulcan Campaign’.

To capture the story, Dafydd Wiliam and I interviewed Rachel Cable, the ‘Save the Vulcan’ campaign manager. We met Rachel at the National Assembly in Cardiff Bay, where 7 years ago, around 50 campaigners presented a petition with over 5,000 signatures to save the pub to Assembly Members.

Among the famous names to back the 5,000-signature petition were James Dean Bradfield, of Manic Street Preachers, actor Rhys Ifans and sports presenter John Inverdale.

Rachel spoke about her first visit to the pub in Adamsdown and how she fell in love with its old fashioned décor and friendly punters and landlady. To Rachel and many others, this was a pub that needed to be saved. As part of the campaign they started a petition, made an application to CADW to get the Vulcan listed, designed and sold Save the Vulcan t-shirts and organised events at the pub such as literary nights and even a Star Treck party!

Rachel also spoke of the huge success of the Save the Vulcan blog and facebook page which helped attract support and also resulted in wider media attention. 

Due the determination and hard work of the campaigners an agreement was reached in 2009 for the Vulcan to remain open for a further three years. The campaign continued during these years, but unfortunately they were to lose the battle, and the last order was called on Friday 4th May, 2012.

You’ll have to wait until the new galleries open to watch the final interview, but until then keep an eye out for more blogs about recording the voices of the Vulcan!

If you or somebody you know have stories or objects related to the Vulcan, we’d love to hear from you – please leave a message in the comments box below.

The Vulcan Hotel is one of the museum's on-going building projects. Read more here.

Sorry about the awful pun in the title. But, yes, it's that time of year, the sun is out, spring's officially here and it's getting warmer. Fantastic you may say, but for our Conservators and Volunteers a new battle is about to begin!  As well as our lovely lambs and piglets, less desirable creatures are stirring. These are the insect pests, such as moths, carpet beetles and woodworm that if left unchecked would quite happily eat our museum and its collections!

This week the volunteer conservation team were introduced to the enemy, in the natural world these insects perform an essential task, but in the confines of our historic houses, or anyone's home in fact, they can cause untold damage especially to items made from wool, fur, feathers, leather, paper and wood.

We have decided to go for a two pronged attack. The first is to re-introduce traditional deterrent methods.  Last year we worked with the gardening team collecting and drying a range of aromatic plants such as Tansy, Wormwood, Rue, Rosemary and Lavender traditionally used to deter insects.  From the selection grown in our gardens we have created the extremely potent St.Fagans blend.

Now we are devising ways to deploy our deterrent in sufficient quantities that might have an effect.  For this we found tights ideal for the task!  Yes, that's correct tights. These are especially useful for items of clothes hung up on display, they enable us to place the aromatic plants in the more inaccessible areas of a garment, such as down sleeves!

The second method of attack is of course good old fashioned housekeeping. Spring is the time to open up the house after a long winter and give everything a good clean, or in our case a good beating.

The recent Ivor Davies exhibition “Silent Explosion” at National Museum Cardiff sparked an explosive partnership project. The museum’s Learning Department and artist Claire Prosser worked with Albert Primary School in Penarth on an art project inspired by Ivor Davies's work. Ivor Davies grew up in Penarth and went to Albert Primary School as a child, where he witnessed the war and air raids on Cardiff. Some of his early work is based on these experiences.

The year 5 pupils visited the exhibition at the National Museum which reflects some of those childhood experiences, and made sketches and collages. One of the boys had re-drawn Ivor Davies’ drawing of enemy planes being caught in search lights, and added an additional plane. Ivor Davies himself came to visit the school at the end of the day of walks and hand signed this drawing and many others, much to the delight of the pupils.

On walks around Penarth the pupils discussed conservation, death and decay with Senior Preventive Conservator, Christian Baars. It is not easy to conserve art which was created to be ephemeral. The pupils learned how organic objects, and even rock, are not ever-lasting, and instead part of a big circle of life, death and resurrection in new forms.

The role of any museum, in essence, is to preserve objects by halting that circle at a particular point. Whether this is in line with the artist's intentions, and how museums deal with this conundrum, was part of a "Conservation Conversation" at National Museum Cardiff a few weeks back. Museum curators, conservators and artists were involved in the discussion then. Bringing this theme closer to year 5 pupils proved entirely possible, as they enjoyed learning about how museums preserve objects while thinking about how it is really difficult to make anything last for centuries.

This interdisciplinary partnership project was also a joy to work on for staff, most of all the preventive conservator, as it brought together so many aspects of art and science.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

The National Waterfront Museum’s current exhibition “Forget me not: Postcards from the First World War” features a fantastic selection of various postcards from the industry & transport, and social & cultural history collections of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. An estimated 272,000 Welshmen served in the First World War, and at the height of the conflict a staggering 19,000 mail sacks a day were sent back to Britain from the front. As well as displaying a wide variety of different types of postcards, the exhibition also showcases some personal stories.


One of these personal stories relates to Evan William Jones, a slate quarryman from Pendyffryn, Dinorwig. Evan was born in about 1891, and when he enlisted was married to Laura with one daughter. He was initially exempted from military service on the grounds of 'exceptional domestic position', and this exemption lasted until 29th September 1916. He then enlisted in the 1/4th Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment on 25th October 1916, where he was a Private with the Reg No. 242727. His Unit Register Card notes his occupation as ‘Slate Quarryman’. On 19th March 1919 he was transferred to the Army Reserve. At the end of the war he was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal.


Amongst the collection relating to Evan Jones’ First World War service are his ‘Certificate of Exemption’, ‘Unit Register Card’, and a ‘Field Service Post Card’. Along with these are eight postcards, one a studio portrait of Evan probably taken before he left for service, and five showing men in military uniform, along with three postcards sent by Evan to his family. There is also a good luck card sent from ‘Evan to my mother’. Most of these are on display in the current exhibition.


Evan W. Jones survived the war, but was later involved in an accident at Dinorwig Quarry when a crane overturned and fell on him, resulting in a fracture of his skull. He died at the Quarry Hospital on 1st December, 1924. The exhibition features a memorial poster printed with a poem (of ten verses) written in Welsh by Elias Hughes (Myfyrian), and containing a photograph of Evan W. Jones in the centre.


Dinorwig Quarry hospital was opened in 1860. General surgery was still practiced there till the 1940s when it became a first aid centre. It closed in 1962, and was later restored and opened as a visitors centre in 1970 as part of the Padarn Lake Country Park. The hospital is situated very close to the National Slate Museum at Llanberis.


“Forget me not: Postcards from the First World War” runs until the 19th June 2016 at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea.


To discover more about First World War collection at Amgueddfa Cymru view this online catalogue.