Amgueddfa Cymru

Hafan

Turkey may seem a long way away to the people of Wales. But events there some 300 million year ago have had a profound and lasting effect, on our Welsh climate, landscape and wildlife.

For about 10 million years, Wales was part of an enormous tropical swampland extending from eastern North America to Turkey and the Caucasus. The dead remains of the plants that grew there caused massive deposits of peat to build-up. This peat was then buried by mud and sand, and the resulting heat and pressure changed it into the coals on which much of the industrial growth of places such as Wales depended, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But nothing lasts for ever, and the swamps eventually dried up and the accumulation of the economically important coal-forming peat came to an end. What caused this profound change to the environment has been the subject of much scientific debate. Research co-ordinated from Amgueddfa Cymru–National Museum Wales (as part of the International Geoscience Programme project IGCP 575) suggests that it was due to the combination of two major factors.

  1. Landscape Change: The collision of two large continental plates (Euramerica and Gondwana) caused a massive upheaval of the landscape, with rivers changing direction and new mountain ranges forming. The effect of these changes was particularly felt in the areas where the swamps had been.
  2. Climate Change: The changing landscape caused a different type of vegetation to grow here, and this coincided with a significant warming of the climate and a reduction in rainfall.

Importantly, these environmental changes started first at the eastern end of these swamplands, in places such as northern Turkey, and then progressively moved westwards towards Wales.

So, in order to understand properly what caused the collapse of this ancient wetland in Wales, we need to study events in Turkey. To do this might have needed extensive (and expensive) field excursions to the area. Fortunately, we have a scientific resource nearer to hand that can provide at least a start to this work. In the years just before and after World War II, the great Dutch palaeobotanist Wilhelmius Jongmans led expeditions to northern Turkey to collect Carboniferous plant fossils. He sadly died before he could properly work on them. Fortunately, however, his collection of over 5,000 Turkish fossils is now stored safely in the Naturalis Museum in the Netherlands.

Chris Cleal from Amgueddfa Cymru–National Museum Wales is now leading a collaborative project with colleagues from the Netherlands, Germany and the UK, to research this collection – using expertise developed in Wales to bear on an internationally important problem. It will help us understand what controlled the formation of coal deposits such as those found in Wales, and how vegetation, atmosphere and climate interacted in Carboniferous times. 

The world 300 million years ago was in many ways similar to today (far more similar to what it was in the intervening millions of years ago, for instance in Mesozoic times, when the dinosaurs were roaming around). Studying how climate, vegetation and the atmosphere interacted in this ancient world therefore allows us to check some of the assumptions on which scientists have been basing their modern-day climate models.

This shows the importance of international collaboration between museums in scientific research – why it is vital for scientists in Wales to work with colleagues from across the world.

Love it, or hate it, this Sunday is Valentine’s Day, where many will exchange cards, gifts and flowers with their loved ones.

The custom of sending Valentines is hundreds of years old, but the tradition truly thrived during the end of the eighteenth century and nineteenth century. The improvement in postal services and printing methods during this period, made it easier than ever to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

The Evening Express in 1885 stated that when the trade was its best, between 1860 and 1880, the public spent a quarter of a million pounds annually upon valentines. It reports that at least 5,000 people, mostly girls and women, were employed in valentine factories, at wages ranging 10s to 18s per week.

Here at St Fagans we have a rather large collection of Valentine Cards dating from this period. Many are elaborate, adorned with cupids, satin ribbon, delicate lace or miniature flowers.

But surprisingly some are of complete contrast to these romantic and sentimental Valentine cards. Several from the collection, feature an ugly comic caricature, with humorous yet rather abusive verses beneath, clearly intended to cause offence.  These cards were referred to as 'Comic Valentines', and their history has largely been forgotten.

The card in the middle right, from our collection at St Fagans National History Museum, is a perfect example of a typical comic valentine card. It shows a rather ugly, dramatic caricature of a woman crying with the following verse beneath:

Tired of your lonely state,
Longing for another male,
But this fact pray understand,
Men don’t like Women second hand
.

These particular kind of cards become incredibly popular during the mid-nineteenth century.

The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian  reported on the 14th February, 1846:

St. Valentine’s Day is now almost everywhere a degenerated festival, the only observance of any note consisting in the sending of anonymous letters, by way of practical joke, and this confined very much to the humbler classes….Each generally consisting of a single sheet of paper, on the first page of which is seen some ridiculous coloured caricature of the male or female figure, with a few burlesque verses below.

The anonymity aspect of sending a Valentine’s card would have made these racy cards appealing. They were also affordable to buy and to send, as they were printed on a single sheet of paper, unlike the more elaborate romantic cards.

Despite their huge popularity, the demand was short lived, and by the late 1800s, Wales and Britain's love of comic Valentines was over.  The late Victorians viewed the cards as malicious and vulgar and demand for a return of moral values, politeness and decency.

Valentines, whether sentimental or comic, have come to be voted common place – not to say 'vulgar'. The Aberystwyth Observer, 21 February, 1885.

The two artists we are lucky enough to have assisting Nils Norman on the playground project are Fern Thomas and Imogen Higgins. Fern will be investigating the archives and collections at St Fagans in order to find inspiration and stories for the new play area. Fern's own practice is based in research and she has previously had a solo show investigating the history of the Mission Gallery in Swansea, entitled When the moon fell out of orbit: from the Institute for Imagined Futures & Unknown Lands

Imogen is a recent graduate from the ceramics course in Cardiff Metropolitan although her work has since developed to be more community focused and inspired more by land art. Imogen will be working with community groups and visitors to collect ideas and suggestions to feed into the design.

We hope both supporting artists will be able to share their work, discoveries and experiences as the project progresses.

In Britain it is estimated that we use 13 billion plastic bottles each year, whilst this has a serious environmental implication, this mass production also has implications for the museums of the future.

Take for example, St Fagans National History Museum, in 100 years’ time what will be on display in the house of 2016?

In our modern society we have come to accept mass produced items as an essential part of our lives. Whilst producing items in this way is cost effective and practical, its introduction has meant that some of these items which historically would have been aesthetically pleasing have lost their aesthetic appeal.

In my room I have chosen to display a collection of bottles manufactured years before I was even born. I am drawn to the beauty and manufacture of these objects, their vibrant colours and slight imperfections. In the past a bottle with a primary function to hold a certain liquid, manufactured of glass could last for years and have a wide array of applications within its lifetime.

Now however, when we buy a bottle of water or fizzy drink, it generally comes in a mass produced bottle made of plastic. Whilst these are very portable they are not generally viewed as being very aesthetically pleasing.

Whilst I may choose to display an old glass bottle, a plastic bottle produced in 2016 would not make it onto my shelf.

Returning to the question of the St Fagans of the future, will they choose to display a plastic water bottle on the kitchen table, the new model of smartphone by the bed or even an E-reader on the bookshelf? Mass production has removed the individuality and beauty from some objects which in the past were manufactured with care.

In the future our culture will be conveyed through the artefacts which we choose to treasure, for some that may be a collection of antiques curated throughout the years but for others it may consist of a collection of modern objects.

The museums of the future will have a very tough time conveying our diverse culture through the use of a select few objects.

The future is uncertain but the choices over what we individually choose to curate will shape the perceptions of our culture in the museum displays of the future.

 

Gracie Price,

Cardiff Museum Youth Forum

 

Sources:

Recycle-more. (2016). Top facts on recycling and the environment. Available: http://www.recycle-more.co.uk/pwpcontrol.php?pwpID=12809. Last accessed: 28th Jan 2016