Explore Your Archive is a joint campaign delivered by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association across the UK and Ireland. It aims to showcase the unique potential of archives to excite people, bring communities together, and tell amazing stories.
Last year staff from Amgueddfa Cymru held an Explore Your Archive event for the first time. It was held in the Oakdale Institute at St. Fagans: National History Museum. We showcased a selection of documents and photographs relating to Wales and the First World War to coincide with the launch of our First World War online catalogue. You can search the catalogue here.
It was a popular event with adults and a number of school parties excited to see original historic archive material, and discuss their history with the staff who look after these collections. The success of last year’s event means that we are organising another one this year. ‘Discovering Wales: History on Your Doorstep’ will be held over two days on 20-21 November in the main hall of National Museum Cardiff, Cathays Park. This year the theme will be travel and tourism and we will have a selection of archive material from our collections including photographs, film, postcards, letters and notebooks for you to look at and discuss with members of the team who curate, manage and conserve the archive collections. This year we will also have a series of events for children. Children will be able create their own postcard for display in the Main Hall, or can put on their Sherlock hats and help us to identify unknown names and places from the photographic collections! There will also be an Explore Your Archive trail around the museum.
We hope to see you there. You can find out more about the event here.
The Bishop’s Palace at Hereford was once a very grand hall, and as it was built in 1180, offers a rare glimpse at the constructional techniques of the period. Last week, my colleagues and I visited the Palace to see the one giant arched-brace that survives, hidden in the attic.
One of St. Fagans’ latest building projects is the reconstruction of a medieval Royal hall from Rhosyr, near Newborough in Anglesey. This hall was significant because it was one of 22 in Gwynedd owned by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn ‘the Great’) during the beginning of the 13th century. At the time Princes were peripatetic and would visit each hall in turn, in order to attend to the administrative needs of that region. As this hall now only stands as a ruin, very little evidence survived of its timber-framed roof, and a considerable amount of research has been undertaken in order to provide a representative design for the reconstruction. One potential ‘post-pad’, and areas of differential stone paving was enough evidence to suggest the existence of two rows of timber posts within the great hall at Rhosyr. These divided the space along its length, forming a central ‘knave’ and an ‘aisle’ on either side. Rows of tall timber posts like these need to be braced together to ensure their rigidity, and hence the reason for our visit to Hereford. The curved arch is almost as impressive today as it must have been when it was built. We plan on replicating this framing technique by joining our posts with similar, if smaller, arched-braces. Together they will form strong ‘arcades’ on which our roof rafters can rest.
The 1168 work was finished to a very high standard, as you can see from the ornately carved capitals and the studding along the upper edge of the brace. The timber is also of some note, as today such large diameters are only to be found in the dreams of woodworkers. For instance, each half of the brace is made from a single long curving trunk, which would be an exceptionally rare find these days. Also, the circular column near the base of the arch has been carved from, and is still attached to, the same trunk as the square post it backs on to - which called for a very wide tree. A point of note, however, is that although the standard of workmanship is high, its design is somewhat frowned upon. In his book ‘English Historic Carpentry’ (1980) Cecil A. Hewett wrote ‘This is poor carpentry’… ‘The Hereford example is wrought to a high standard, but this quality is expressed only in the skilled cutting of the timber and the degree of ‘fit’ achieved. As illustrated, the jointing is weak and hardly deserves to be called such..’
Although described as ‘bad carpentry’ The Bishop’s Palace has stood for 835 years. Having returned from Hereford, my challenge is to replicate this design for use in our own hall, where 17 of these semi-circular arched braces are required to support Llys Rhosyr’s thatched roof, albeit at a reduced scale. The inclusion of a pair of hidden tennons at the top of the arch will successfully raise the standard of the jointing while crucially, maintaining the look of the original brace.
This October Amgueddfa Cymru had the wonderful opportunity to be a part of the Made in Roath community arts festival. Now in its 7th year, the festival celebrates creative talent by taking art out of the gallery and into the wider community, with an emphasis on social engagement and inclusivity.
During the weekend of 17th and 18th October, the Natural Science conservators and curators along with some amazing Made in Roath volunteers, contributed to the festival’s creative extravaganza by installing a pop-up museum in a residential house. The unique setting allowed us to display many of our scientific specimens in a completely different way and also to make great use of our outreach collections.
Our aim was to simply have fun with the specimens, to inspire curiosity and delight for our visitors, and reinforce the idea that museums can be a friendly, relaxed spaces. So that’s just what we did…. by placing a sheep in the kitchen, a giant ancient millipede on the worktop, a crocodile under the stairs and an ostrich skeleton in the bay window. We filled a snooker table full of insects, made blinds from pressed plants and replaced the cups and saucers in the welsh dresser with fossils and minerals. Our curators enjoyed weaving their humour into the displays in subtle ways too. Visitors may have noticed a fox and otter playing a family game together and spelling their names, the spider’s web in the garden with its own paper label and even the specially created 2015.032 accession number with reference to the year of the festival and the door number of the house!
Thanks to everyone’s hard work, the exhibition was a huge success and was amazingly well received by the local community. We have a visitor book full of lovely comments to prove it!
We’d like to say special thanks to the local Roath celebrity, Boyd Clack, who cut the red ribbon and opened the museum for us; the property owners who let us take over their home; and our volunteers who warmly welcomed visitors over the weekend, helping us to bring the museum to life.
We hope that our collaborative work with Made in Roath will grow in the future, so we can find even more creative ways to engage the community with our science collections. Watch this space!
For the last five years, St Fagans National History Museum has been a partner in the EU Culture-funded project, OpenArch.
OpenArch is an exciting project which aims to raises standards of management, interpretation and visitor interaction in those open-air museums that focus on Europe’s early history – archaeological open-air museums (AOAMs) as they have become known. AOAMs can be found right across Europe, bringing to life everything from Stone Age campsites to Iron Age farms, Roman forts and medieval towns. Their great strength is in the way in which they present their stories, often through detailed reconstructions and live interpretation.
And, of course, St Fagans National History Museum.
The project itself consists of three main strands: conferences and workshops, staff exchanges and activities.
Almost all the partners have hosted conferences related to the main area they are covering in the project: management practices, visitor interaction, craft work, scientific studies and communication, among others. Many of these have attracted large audiences and all have been stimulating opportunities to share new ideas.
Staff exchanges have also been a key method of strengthening links between the partner organisations, with practitioners spending time working in one another’s institutions to help share best practice.
The activities that partners have undertaken have, of course, been very varied. For example, visitor surveys have been undertaken to help us understand how well we are serving the public, and scientific studies have been carried out to learn more about how life was lived in the past and how this can be shown to the public.
What has St Fagans done?
St Fagans has benefited tremendously from the project. Over the course of the last five years, around twenty members of staff from all parts of the museum have had the opportunity to see how their colleagues in other museums go about their work. It’s been a chance to share what we do well, and learn from others. On one exchange visit, staff from our Events team were able to see how public activities were organised by our partners at Archeon in the Netherlands. On another, our Iron Age learning facilitator helped out on an Iron Age themed event in Calafell, Spain. The experience has certainly given us a better appreciation of the benefits of European working and has helped us to develop further ideas for collaborative working with European partners.
Throughout the project we have been using the experience we’ve gained in OpenArch to improve the quality of the new Iron Age farmhouses which we’ve been building. For example, we learnt from the very high standards of interior display demonstrated by our colleagues in Modena in Italy and adopted their standards in the choice of display items; while the work of the Hunebedcentrum in the Netherlands helped in suggesting ways that we could improve our building maintenance programmes. Along the way we’ve shared what we’ve learnt and how we’ve applied it in presentations at conferences run by the partners.
Perhaps the high point of our involvement in the project was the conference that we ran in May 2015. We used this to focus the project on issues relating to the management of archaeological open-air museums, and over three days we looked at issues both theoretical and practical in the company of a very distinguished selection of speakers from across Europe.
Alongside the conference we ran a craft festival as a major public event – the first of its kind to be held at St Fagans in many years. Over the course of a packed day, we hosted around 50 craftspeople from across Wales and the UK, including colleagues from our partner museums who were with us on staff exchange. Together they put on a great show, demonstrating everything from metalworking to pot-making, leatherwork, painting, food preparation and lots more. Over 5,000 visitors came to visit and feedback was excellent.
More information about our involvement in OpenArch can be found on the project website: openarch.eu.
Conservators are a misunderstood race. When we start talking about what we do (conservation, of course), many people see us cuddling pandas and elephant babies. Some of us do indeed work with elephants – but generally only long after their demise. Because we protect not the living from dying, but the dead from decaying.
Natural and cultural heritage (for a definition, please see here) does not last forever. In fact, heritage can be incredibly ephemeral. In the museum context, just think of all the materials we hold in store: paper, wood, bone, feathers, leaves, glass, ceramics – all things that can break or decompose easily. But this just happens to be what your heritage is made of. All those objects making up our cultural treasure chest are in constant danger of breaking, getting mouldy, being eaten by insects, falling apart.
It is the job of your friendly museum conservator to make sure your children and your children’s children will still have that cultural reference point in many years to come. This requires a lot of work, all of the time – the rot never sleeps. Usually, only when things go wrong do conservators end up in the news. Most of the time, these highly skilled and experienced people go about their jobs unseen, in laboratories and studios deep in the bowels of museums, or in the galleries long after closing time.
To be a conservator today requires years of training, and rightly so – our heritage is too precious to risk gluing a beard back on wonky and with the wrong type of glue. The National Museum’s team of 20 conservators cares for approximately three million objects. These collections are hugely varied: the museum collects helicopters, microfossils, skeletons, oil paintings, mobile phones, harps and 18th century ball gowns. Conservation is therefore definitely for the specialist.
Restoring a painting, cleaning a Viking sword or preparing a fossil dinosaur skull, let me tell you, is really not easy. If you want to do it well it takes knowledge of materials, history and analytical sciences, experience and skill. Is it any easier to store things? Well, no, actually, to store objects correctly – that is, without inviting decay – the store must be dry (but not too dry!), cool, clean, free from pests, well organised, and have the right type of shelving for whatever we are storing.
Do you now want a chance to find out what a conservator is and what they really do? If you have a coin bring it along to our first Museum Conservators Open Day – we’ll show you what it’s made from during half term week: 27th October 2015 at National Museum Cardiff. You can play the X-ray game (perfectly safe, promise!), find out what creepy-crawlies are eating our collections and your wardrobe at home, and try your hands at conservation skills. All for free from 10am to 5pm!