Llys Llywellyn (Llywellyn’s Court) is a partial reconstruction of an archaeologically-excavated royal site on the island of Anglesey

St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

Essex Havard, Issue 119/02, 01.02.2019
By the people, for the people, is the mantra taken to heart by this revamped venue, says Essex Havard
Sain Ffagan Amgueddfa Werin Cymru (St Fagans National Museum of History) is as close to the social and folk soul of Wales as it is possible to get. Since its opening in 1948, millions of people have visited its serene grounds, Elizabethan manor house and many iconic buildings from around Wales, dismantled and rebuilt at this open-air museum where you can “see Wales in a day”.

Its founder, Iorwerth Peate, is an iconic figure in Welsh culture. Indeed, his grave actually lies within St Fagans’ boundary – the collector becoming part of the museum. Iconic founder; iconic collections; the soul of a nation. Could the current generation of staff rise to the challenge of taking the National Museum of History into the next 50 years?

The answer is a resounding yes. St Fagans secured a £15m Heritage Lottery Fund grant (the biggest single grant ever given in Wales) to go towards a £30m redevelopment of the museum. The first phase of that – new gallery space, education workshops, cafes, facilities and a craft centre – opened in October 2017 (Museums Journal October 2017, p44).

This final phase – including contents of three new galleries and a reconstruction of a royal residency – was launched on 18 October 2018 to much fanfare and excitement from the cultural sector as well as the public.

Aspects of Wales
 
The first section, “Wales is”, explores bite-sized chunks of Welsh history. The floor layout is like that of a mobile phone’s home screen. The floorplan, book-ended by flexible wall projection and/or performance space, is a grid of blocks, each one accommodating a different exhibition case exploring aspects of what Wales “is”.

For example: “Wales is scarred by war” is animated with voices of soldiers and the story of conflict; “Wales is coal” is perhaps a predictable theme, but the brevity with which it is dealt is refreshingly welcome, as it could have descended into stereotyping, important as the coal industry was; and “Wales is drowned out”, which tells the story of the flooding of a valley to supply water to Liverpool, a chapter in history that gave birth to a resurgent Welsh language and nationalist movement that shaped modern Wales.

Extensive community consultation identified what each of these “chunks” of history should be. The gallery, which has a simplicity of design, will be renewed regularly based on what the public wants to see.

Some exhibits have wall space (and stickers) for visitors to express their opinions. The most surprising of these is around a large photo of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher who sits and smiles among a group of coalminers. Her presence in this gallery has certainly stimulated debate. All ephemeral, paper-based, public responses to this (and other) exhibits are being curated by museum staff. Public opinion is valued by the museum.

The second section, “Life is”, is the gallery that displays the life of ordinary people. Their work, their loves, their leisure. Stand out objects for me include an Edwardian tile and brass chip-shop fryer and, playfully, a 1950s caravan (with full contents) donated by the Dodds family, who also gave family film footage which is projected onto the outside wall of the caravan.

Root and branch
 
Some other museums in the UK are adopting this type of partnership working with community groups on a small scale. But St Fagans has completely altered the way it collects and curates in a root and branch change of museological attitude. This gallery (and its sister next door) is testament to hundreds of hours of collaboration, communication, and inspiration.

I cannot praise the museum enough for building on its Paul Hamlyn Foundation “Our Museum” project, in which it was a partner from 2012 to 2015. This special initiative helped curatorial and learning staff to “let go” of their stewardship and allow the public to influence their policies and values. This gallery is a joy.

Leaving the main building, the next gem to discover, as one walks past an artist-designed children’s playground and a slightly incongruous treetop rope walk, is Y Gweithdy (The Workshop). This starkly angular new building nestles cleverly in an awkward space between two listed woodland trackways. It houses a cafe, a well-resourced craft skills workshop and a gallery.

The latter is, perhaps, my favourite part of the overhaul that has taken place at St Fagans. It tells the stories of crafts and craftspeople through a material-themed approach to display. Objects, and the tools used to create them, are exhibited exquisitely, as much art objects as artisan. Here, a cabinet-maker’s tools, there a bronze-age carved wooden post.

Table space and interactives make this an ideal creative space, and the workshop area is already hosting a series of public craft events. Mae’r Gweithdy yn disgleirio! (The Workshop shines!)

Varied spaces
 
Close to Y Gweithdy is Llys Llywellyn (Llywellyn’s Court), a partial reconstruction of an archaeologically-excavated royal site on the island of Anglesey. The two buildings recreated here act not only as a talisman to discover Wales’s indigenous royal past but also as a residential centre and kitchen that school groups can use. Finally, also nearby, is Bryn Eryr, a reconstruction of an iron age dwelling.

David Anderson, the director general of Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales) says of the whole development: “We see this not as a project but as a way of working for the whole organisation, based on social justice and participation, which we will sustain and develop in the years ahead. It is the beginning of a new era at St Fagans and all of Wales’s national museums.”

This way of working can be summed up as “letting go” – of preconceived ideas of what a museum is or should be and of deeply held curatorial principles and, possibly, some prejudices.

Back in the “Wales is” gallery, a video of young people discussing devolution sits beneath a 1997 “Yes” campaign banner. One of the youngsters, with wisdom belying his age, says: “Democracy is expressing yourself in a crowd.”

By democratically engaging with community groups in the design, content, and message of this ambitious project, St Fagans is not only expressing itself, it is standing out.

Essex Havard is an adult learning and cultural consultant based in Cardiff

Focus on Interpretation through cultural participation
 
St Fagans, the UK’s first national open-air museum, opened its doors in 1948. In that same year, the United Nations declared that participation in cultural life was a basic human right.

From the beginning, St Fagans aimed to interpret culture through the everyday lives of the people of Wales. Seventy years on, the museum still places cultural participation centre stage.

As a national museum of history, we aim to create history with rather than for people, thus facilitating people’s access to their cultural rights.

How have we done this? By involving people across Wales in creating three new galleries, and reconstructing Llys Llywelyn, a medieval court. We consulted with more than 120 organisations and collaborated with artists, craftspeople, young people, academics and community groups to reimagine the museum.

Together we made decisions about content, collected new objects and developed new narratives. We have broken new ground in promoting the Welsh language by writing narratives that avoid slavish translation and support those learning Welsh and English as a second language.

The gallery interpretation is structured around opportunities for people to be part of the story, and not just visitors to it.

For St Fagans, this is more than a project. It is a new way of being a national museum.
Nia Williams is the director of learning and engagement at Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales) and Beth Thomas is the former keeper of history and archaeology

Project data

  • Cost of project £30m
  • Main funders National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund; the Welsh Government
  • Architects Purcell (main building); Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (Gweithdy)
  • Main contractor Kier Construction
  • Mechanical, electrical, structural engineer Arup
  • Exhibition design Event Communications
  • Gallery internal construction and fit-out Elmwood Projects
  • Graphic design Design intent by Event Communications; production by Elmwood Projects with Service Graphics
  • Lighting design by Experience Lighting; production by Elmwood Projects with SI-Electrical
  • Display cases Meyvaert Glass Engineering
  • Specialist object mounts for in-case objects Richard Rogers Conservation
  • Heavy object installation Plowden & Smith
  • Model of a Neanderthal child Alfons and Adrie Kennis
  • Showcase and gallery plinth alarms Euronova
  • Interpretation Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales) in partnership with community groups and external specialists
  • Games/interactives Design intent by Event Communications; production by Elmwood Projects with Myriad UK, and National Museum Wales
  • AV Elmwood Projects; Atlas AV; Spiral Productions; National Museum Wales in partnership with community groups and external specialists
  • Film Canna Production Services; National Museum Wales; and Ewenny Pottery
  • Admission Free

Comments

Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
10.02.2019, 11:09
My first visit to St Fags was on a school trip, the second was to do an assignment for a museum studies course and I have been back a few times since to what is Wales's most 'European' museum. The most memorable parts were the Rhyd y Car terrace (positive) and (not so positive) the Breton visitor assistant (who didn't understand my learner Welsh, wouldn't speak our common language - French and as for English, dim sians!).

I am looking forward to the new visitor experience inside as let's be honest, traditionally most people have bypassed the galleries and headed straight for the open air, welsh cakes and the historic reconstructions.

St Fagans has always been Wales' most 'political' museum so it will be interesting to see what and whose 'politics' are prioritized and which are overlooked, whether and how it represents the various Waleses that exist, whether North-East Wales appears at all, and which stories have come to the fore and most importantly is it somewhere you would choose to go in your leisure time.

The only thing that surprised me in the review was the admittance between the lines that staff at St Fagans had been previously been engaged in 'slavish translations', presumably from Welsh into English! It is a sad admittance but I am looking forward to the interpretation, in both languages and hoping they won't say exactly the same story, but rather complement each other in a conversation that reveals different experiences and enlightens.