St Fagans National History Museum Making History Project
Out with the old, in with the new
By: Sioned Hughes, Head of Public History
It’s difficult to imagine that over the next couple of years the old Agricultural Gallery, largely unchanged at St Fagans for 20 or more years will be transformed as part of the Making History project. It will become a space that celebrates the fact that history belongs to everyone. It will be a platform where the museum shifts from being the provider of history to supporting and providing opportunities for others to explore meanings around diverse objects and make their own histories through participation and community curated displays.
Currently called by its working title Wales Is… we aim to display 17 moments in Welsh history using objects from the national collections. It will be a space where we encourage visitors to use historical skills to find out what the national collections can tell them about different moments in Welsh history.
The past few months have seen the Making History core content team work intensively with designers from Event Communications to develop this space. It’s an exciting, creative and intense process that involves looking in depth at our object selection and testing them against this exciting new concept.
To aid our current thinking and to generate discussion, we have stopped thinking about this space as a gallery and have started referring to it as a 3D social media account. Over the next few weeks we will be developing the idea of using social media as a conceptual framework for how the space works and how visitors will behave in it.
So far, we have identified that we would like the space to have followers and that it will follow other institutions or spaces that share relevant collections and opinions. We would like to ask visitors to Like, Share and Comment on what they see and provide opportunities to do this digitally and non-digitally, both in the space and remotely. We would like the space to have its own social media account and we would like its digital identity to develop as the content and the space itself develops – not as an add-on once it is open. We are looking at the possibility of tagging displays and objects so that content generated around them can be gathered and used as layers of interpretation. We want each display to have a social media feed on a screen as part of its interpretation.
The Public History Unit
Key to testing and delivering this space is the establishment of a new Public History Unit within the History and Archaeology Department. As a unit we have already facilitated workshops that support groups to develop historical skills to discover what objects can tell them about the past. These sessions have generated diverse, sometimes surprising, often emotional and occasionally controversial content that adds layers of rich and relevant interpretation to our storytelling.
In the space, we see the content generated around the displays, both digitally and non-digitally, as information that will be curated by museum staff. It will also be part of curatorial practise to manage social media campaigns around displays so that targeted audiences are reached. These campaigns will be supported by a programme of events and pop-up activities that can be used to generate interest and debate.
Suffrage Participatory Workshops
As part of the process for testing the content for Wales Is…the Public History Unit took the national suffrage collection to two schools in the Newport area as part of the Bird in a Cage project with Winding Snake. Within a few hours, over a hundred pupils from Lewis Girls School and Ysgol Gymraeg Casnewydd had seen and participated in a debate around the collections and suffrage movement in Wales. This is an example of how objects can generate content that is as interesting as the objects themselves. It demonstrates how groups and individuals can construct their own meanings around what they see. It also showed how social media can be used to generate interest and debate around a subject area.
The next challenge
The challenge will now be to work with Event to develop a design that can deliver this concept so that the outcomes of a participatory workshop can translate into a gallery context using the framework provided by Social Media. The questions we are asking ourselves at the moment are: is this workable? How can we use the information generated? What would a social media campaign linked to one of the displays look like? How can we create a framework and strategy to help develop the digital identity of the space? And most important of all, is this approach future proof? The Agricultural Gallery was popular at St Fagans for over 20 years. This new space will also have to stand the test of time and the changing behaviour patterns of our visitors in the future.
The Participatory Forums
The Informal Learning Forum
Informal Learning in this context refers to learning outside of the school curriculum. The group consists of representatives from organizations across Wales that facilitate adult and family learning. Most members had previous knowledge of the project having participated in workshops during the planning stage. This group have agreed a remit of work which includes; helping to develop a programme of activities that appeals to people of varied background and ability and reviewing gallery content to ensure we provide appropriate interpretive methods for these audiences.
As a result of this Forum a group of adult learners from the Workers Educational Association (WEA) participated in interpretation workshops in July. The workshops provided an opportunity for the group to give their views on items intended for the ‘Wales is’ gallery. Objects studied at close hand included a tailors quilt and artefacts dating from the First World War. The sessions were facilitated by curators working directly with the objects – ensuring that the feedback gleaned has a direct impact on their work.
Bryn Eryr Farm - How to become an Iron Age Carpenter
As Steve said in his last blog posted in December, we’ve started work on growing the thatch for our new Iron Age farm. Alongside this work we’ve also been giving a lot of thought to the objects that will go inside the houses. Far from being primitive, these replica objects will reflect the high level of knowledge and skill possessed by people who lived in Bryn Eryr over 2000 years ago. One of the first tasks is to furnish the round houses with all those essential objects that no self-respecting Iron Age household could do without, such as plates, bowls, utensils, buckets , storage containers, shelves, barrels, weaving looms, beds, just to name a few.
In this period all these items were made from wood, but we have a problem, wood deteriorates quickly in the ground so objects made from this material rarely survive. However, we think we can find out more about the wooden objects they would have had by studying the carpentry tools available at this time. These were made from iron and because of this have survived in greater abundance. Ancient iron-work is often much underrated as it doesn’t look very attractive, but when trying to recreate everyday life the information domestic ironwork objects can provide is invaluable.
The first stage of making the replicas was to search the archaeological collections for any original Iron Age carpentry tools. Much to my delight we had quite a lot of material and could virtually recreate a whole tool kit from examples found throughout Wales. Our Bryn Eryr tool kit will therefore consist of an axe, adze-hammer, gouge, chisels, files, drill bits and numerous wedges from small to large. Timber in the Iron Age was divided up by splitting with wedges rather than cutting with a saw. Saws did exist, but were small, similar to modern pruning saws today.
An Iron Age household would be equipped with a wide range of tools for a variety of purposes. Some of these objects appear strange to us today, but others are quite familiar. A 2,000 year old chisel found in the Roman fort of Brecon Gaer and a gouge from the Hill Fort at Castell Henllys wouldn’t look out of place in a carpenter’s tool kit today.
Once our tool kit had been compiled from the examples in the collection, the next step was to make working replicas that could be used by our craftspeople to recreate the objects for Bryn Eryr.
Careful conservation of the original tools had preserved some of the original surfaces. Marks on these surfaces enabled our blacksmith 2000 years later to work out how they were made and reproduce the replicas as accurately as possible. The replicas are recreated in wrought iron like the originals, which is much softer than the steel used today, so it will be interesting to see how these tools perform? Will we be able to produce a decent cutting edge, how quickly will this edge dull and how often will it need to be sharpened?
Making the tool heads is only half the story, these tools can’t be used without handles! None of the originals survive and from the shape of some tools we just can’t pop modern handles on them. We know our tools once had wooden handles, because in some cases the deteriorating iron around the socket had made a cast of the wood surface before the handle disappeared. Using a combination of this information and some surviving material from elsewhere, plus the expertise of our own carpenters and estate workers, we managed to reproduce handles to complete the tools.
Now all we have to do is see if they work! More importantly have we still got the expertise to use these tools properly? Hopefully by using them we’ll gain an insight into the skill of our Iron Age carpenters. I’m sure they would be laughing themselves silly if they could see our efforts today, but we have to start somewhere!
So, how did our tools perform? Its early days, but everyone including our craftspeople are impressed. They appear to be performing well, we even managed to split a large piece of timber with our wedges. It probably explains why so many of these wedges end up in our collection, they tend to get lost inside the timber during splitting and fall to the ground where they are difficult to spot!
We hope to undertake more experimental work to assess the performance of these tools, so keep watching this space, but in the mean time we have to crack on, there’s the contents of a roundhouse to make!
Starting work on our new Celtic Village
As many regular visitors to St Fagans will know, our much-loved Celtic Village was closed earlier in the year. Twenty years seems to be about the normal life-span for reconstructed Iron Age roundhouses – the timbers decay and they begin to get a bit wobbly after that. To replace it we're going to be building a new reconstruction based on a 2,000 year old Iron Age farmstead on Anglesey called Bryn Eryr, and just recently we reached a really exciting milestone along the way.
The Bryn Eryr roundhouses consisted of two buildings built side-by-side. Their walls were made of packed clay (probably mixed with grit and straw, like Wales's traditional clom-built houses) and the roofs were thatched. We've had a lot of discussions about what we should use to thatch them. Naturally the roofs of the original buildings haven't survived, but we do know that its Iron Age owners had access to spelt – an early form of wheat – because charred grains were found at the site. From there the argument goes, if they were harvesting spelt grains to make their bread they also had their hands-on a useful thatching material, spelt straw.
So, we thought, St Fagans is surrounded by farm land, we've got an excellent farming team, and lots of enthusiasm, why not try to grow a crop of spelt ourselves and see whether we can thatch our next Iron Age farmstead with it?
There are a lot of uncertainties involved in this, many things can go wrong between the idea and the harvesting but St Fagans is part of an EU collaboration which encourages just this kind of experimental research. So thanks to the OpenArch project, with its Culture programme funding, and a lot of advice from experts in the field (apologies for the pun), we've decided to give it a go.
A few months ago we ploughed 3.4 hectares (8.4 acres) just outside the main museum site. This looks like an enormous area when you're stood beside it, but we're told this is what we need in order to produce enough straw to thatch two large roundhouses.
With the ploughing done, our Learning Team organised an opportunity for school groups to come out and see what we were up to. This was followed by the museum's archaeologists bringing together a team of volunteers who walked the area in search of any artefacts that may have been turned up by the plough. The finds from this have yet to be analysed but already we can see that the area had been visited by prehistoric hunter-gatherers, a 13th-century traveller who lost some loose change, and many other more recent people.
And then it rained, and rained and rained. Our spelt seed arrived and was placed in a barn, and still it rained. I was beginning to get very worried. It's all very well having a plan to grow a crop of Iron Age wheat, but that's not going to happen if the seed stays in sacks. Then a few weeks the weather cleared up, the ground dried sufficiently and we finally got a chance to plant.
Then we waited… Would anything happen? Had we left it too late? Would frosts / rain / snow put a stop to our plans? Happily not! Last week we found the first seeds had germinated. I’m going out to the field again today to check on its progress. Will the shoots be showing? Have we got the spacing of the seed right? Will the rabbits leave it alone? Will it grow tall? I feel like an expectant father all over again.
The Participatory Forums
The Young Ambassadors
This group of young adults first met in early June. They have expressed great passion for the Museum’s redevelopment project and an enthusiasm to create and run an outreach programme aimed specifically at youths in Wales. The group will also be reviewing the programme of activities for young people and providing insight into gallery content and interpretation. They participated in the interpretation workshops in July (depicted below) and were described as ‘inspirational’ by staff involved in the session.
The Participatory Forums
The Our Museum Participatory Forum was established in 2011 during the development of the HLF redevelopment project bid and the bid to the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to develop community engagement within the Museum. This has meant that the two programmes have been integrally linked from the outset. The forum consists of Museum staff, Trustees and representatives from third and public sector organisations who work closely with community groups in Wales. Through their involvement in the forum the needs and interests of the communities they represent are voiced, and thus become a core element of the Museums methodology.
The aim of the Forum is to embed and sustain volunteering at the Museum and create a ‘Community of Volunteers’. The central aim is to ensure the volunteers needs are at the heart of what we do, making volunteering more accessible and relevant to the diverse communities we represent as a NationalMuseum.
Over the summer we ran a large scale volunteer recruitment drive. With the help of the Community Partners we placed approximately 50 volunteers in roles across the Museum with Departments such as the Historic Buildings Unit, Learning, Estates and Events. The volunteers have come from all walks of life and are all volunteering for different reasons; some retired, some students, some looking for a new challenge and others looking for routine and activity in a beautiful place where they can learn new skills and meet new people.
The Diversity Forum
This group is formed of representatives from organizations that work closely with diverse community groups. The group was formed with the goal of ensuring that the redevelopment of the Museum is accessible, of interest to and representative of all. They first met in April and discussed collaborative methods, approaches to engaging key audiences and the importance of developing models of best practice.
As a result of this Forum a group from South-Riverside Communities First participated in interpretation workshops in August. Objects discussed included an idol of the Goddess Durga and a cluster of archaeological artefacts relating to the oldest human remains found in Wales. The curators involved commented that it was refreshing to see the objects through fresh eyes. The group were eager to place items in the context of global history – an interesting approach that would help to engage both those of diverse background living in Wales and the wealth of foreign visitors to the Museum.
The Participatory Forums
The User Design Forum
This is an intergenerational group consisting of young adults from Caerphilly Youth Forum, their Youth leaders and four teachers from Secondary Schools in south Wales. The group have been meeting for over two years and have worked closely with the architects on the designs for the new building (Gweithdy) and the developments to the Main Building. They have also been meeting with the exhibition designers (Event) to provide feedback on ideas relating to the gallery spaces. Their most recent involvement was in attending interpretation workshops where they were able to respond directly to objects and discuss methods of presentation and interpretation with the relevant curators.
The photos depict the group on a benchmarking trip to M Shed in Bristol (an exhibition space designed by Event) and at the interpretation workshop in July.
The Participatory Forums
Hello, and welcome to the first instalment of what will become a regular blog following the development of Participatory Forums at St Fagans National History Museum. As part of its exciting redevelopment project (the result of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund) the Museum has been developing public consultation methods and engaging with representatives from third sector organisations and individuals from across Wales. These groups symbolise a transformation in our methods of working and are a key step towards our goal of becoming a truly participatory museum.
Discussion and debate is set to be a predominant theme throughout the new gallery spaces. The curators are currently working with the design team Event to develop methods of recording public opinion and responses to objects on display. The plan at present is to open up the floor for further debate online – to create a forum where people can respond to the gallery spaces and to each other, creating a platform for debate which will inspire the Museum’s continued development.
There are a number of issues that will need addressing along the way if we are to ensure that the Museum is representative of Wales as a whole. These will include:
- accessing close-knit community groups who may not see the Museum as representative of their histories
- addressing the poverty barrier to ensure the Museum is accessible to all
- ensuring we provide for people of different ages, ability and varied background.
The primary issue now is to ensure that we are representative of Wales today and that our reach is Wales wide. These are concerns that publicising our ventures can help resolve. We can be Wales wide and representative of all by making the developments visible to all and opening the floor for discussion and debate.
So, let’s set the debate off now! The theme for the first gallery will be ‘Wales is…’ looking at the stereotypical ideals of ‘Welshness’ while also opening the floor for a debate on what Wales is to others, and how Wales has developed throughout history. So, what is Wales to you? We are developing a great Word Cloud of responses. If you email five words that you believe sum up Wales to the link bellow, we will add them to the Word Cloud and post the results here!
And, watch this space for updates on how the Forums have been helping the Museum achieve its goals…
Making History Together
Beth Thomas, Keeper of History & Archaeology
If you Google ‘National History Museum’ the first thing that comes up is London’s Natural History Museum, and then St Fagans. Though it is gratifying that St Fagans comes so near the top of the list, it does make you wonder why there are so few other national history museums listed. Of course, many national history museums don't call themselves such - some are simply the national museum, or the histories of the nation are split among a number of museums.
There is no doubt that being called a national history museum is loaded with expectations. Is it a one-stop shop for an authoritative narrative of the nation? The EUNAMUS project research reports are really worth reading (http://www.eunamus.eu/index.html). This EC-funded multidisciplinary project explored the formation and power of national museums in Europe.
A particular quote from the project summary really rang a bell with me in terms of the pressure of traditional expectations of a national museum:
'The museum is seen as possessing treasures and contributing to knowledge while simultaneously making concrete the cultural attributes of the nation. This is the performance undertaken by most national museums: visitors are expected to bow to the authority of the institution as it possesses the real evi- dence of the past.'
St Fagans is a former national open-air folk museum feeling its way towards becoming a national history museum. We are bringing the national collections of archaeology and social history together in an open-air site to create a very unique learning experience. Our origins as a museum lead us to a bottom-up approach to national history - or rather histories. We don't want visitors to bow to the authority of the institution - we want them to recognise our expertise, yes, but also to feel that they have a contribution to make. The significance of our collections to Wales is as much about their feelings in the present as about our knowledge of the past.
Some of you will already have read Nina Simon's The Participatory Museum. If not, then read it now - it's free and online. This publication has been a great source of inspiration to us on the project team. We aim to create a participatory museum of history on a national scale - no pressure there!
So what exactly does that mean? Well our aim is to work with the people of Wales to create a museum that actually makes a difference to people's lives - a place where everyone can share knowledge, collections and skills and make history together. We want the people of Wales to contribute so that they are part of the story and not just visitors to it. We intend to ask our users to define what is recognised and preserved as Welsh history.
Most importantly we want it to be a museum that continually evolves with the people that participate with it. This blog is part of that process. You can find more detailed information about the aims and objectives of the project here. But from now on, the project team will add to this blog, and give you glimpses into the trials and tribulations of trying to deliver our vision of what a national history museum should be. Join us on the journey, and let us know what you think!