Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales

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Before Christmas, I posted a blog about our First World War collections. If you’ve had a chance to browse our new online catalogue, you’ll know that we have a number of campaign medals and memorial plaques in the collection. Recently, we accepted a donation from the family of Private Alfred Prosser Workman – a coal miner who is commemorated, along with his brother Edward, on the Newbridge War Memorial. Thanks to the generosity of Mrs Gaynor Hoare, we now have Alfred's Victory Medal, British War Medal and memorial plaque in the collection.

Alfred Prosser Workman

Alfred Prosser Workman served with the 11th South Wales Borderers. He married Mrs Hoare’s grandmother, Elsie Mayo, in 1915. After his death in 1916, the young widow went on to marry Mrs Hoare’s grandfather, William Thomas, in 1919. Elsie remained close to Alfred’s family long after he had died. Although not a blood relative, her son called Alfred’s mother ‘Granny Workman’.

Memorial on the move

The Newbridge War Memorial was re-erected here at St Fagans in 1996. Its original location, high on a hill in Caetwmpyn Park, Newbridge, made access an issue for ageing veterans. A new memorial was built in the town centre and the original structure was offered to the Museum. Members of the Newbridge Branch of the Royal British Legion organise an annual service of remembrance at the Museum. It remains, twenty years down the line, their memorial.

Community engagement

The First World War centenary has provided an ideal opportunity for us to re-connect with the people of Newbridge. Across the country, communities of ‘citizen historians’ are coming together to uncover their First World War heritage, and Newbridge is no exception. Supported by Ken Merriott of the Newbridge Branch, Tim and Suzy Bowers have been researching the hidden histories of the 79 men commemorated on Newbridge War Memorial. Take a look at their fantastic website to learn more about the project. Alfred Prosser Workman’s story is featured here.

This research is also accessible at the Museum in the Reading Room of Oakdale Institute. We have condensed the men’s biographies into short profiles which you can browse in the form of replica broadsheet newspapers.

Museum scientists were out and about during half-term week, when the I Spy…Nature pop-up museum paid a visit to Fairwater Library on 30th October.  Curators from the Botany, Invertebrate Diversity and Palaeontology sections took along specimens from their collection areas to show the public, along with a microscope and quizzes to encourage them to look even closer.

Ingrid Jüttner challenged people to identify as many trees as they could, using beautiful displays of freshly-pressed leaves and fruits.  This activity was a big hit with grown-ups, and it was very pleasing to see so many parents and grandparents encouraging children to learn more about these important plants, which bring our living spaces to life.

The library’s meeting room became temporary home to an impressive array of marine and mollusc specimens from the Invertebrate Diversity section.  People were fascinated by the creatures on display, which evoked a range of reactions (including ‘they’re really gross!’) depending on how they felt about slugs and worms!  Teresa Darbyshire showed some of the diversity of life found around our shores, with beautiful sea shells, lobster, starfish, and a pickled octopus and giant sea worm.  Visitors tried their hands at identifying shells using a key, all good training for trips to the beach!  Ben Rowson challenged people to identify mystery objects under the microscope, and introduced them to slug identification using his recently published book and life-like models.

Lucy McCobb showed visitors a range of fossils from different periods of the Earth’s history, ranging from an Ice Age mastodon tooth and horse’s leg bone, through Jurassic ammonites and ichthyosaur bones, to trilobites, which are among Wales’s oldest fossils.  The ‘what’s in a name?’ quiz was popular with children, and asked them to use the meanings of scientific names to match up the name with the correct fossil.

This was I Spy..Nature's  first venture into libraries, and showed that they have great potential as venues for taking the Museum’s collections and experts out into communities.

What is an aria? That was the question posed by Music Theatre Wales Director, Michael McCarthy to kick-off this very exciting collaborative project. The Make an Aria scheme is a partnership between Music Theatre Wales (MTW) and the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD) giving young composers an opportunity to have-a-go at opera. This time, they are using St Fagans Castle and the Museum’s collections as their inspiration. A group of composers from RWCMD teamed with creative writers will ‘make an aria’ from scratch.

So where do you start? A speed-dating session was a good way to establish the best creative match for composer and writer. When everyone was paired-up, curator Elen Phillips gave an introduction to the material for the arias – the story of St Fagans Castle during the Great War.

The Windsor-Clive family of St Fagans Castle were at the centre of events during these turbulent years; Lord Windsor as chairman of the Welsh Army Corps and Lady Windsor as President of the Red Cross Society in Glamorgan. Grief-stricken by the loss of their youngest son, Archer, who was killed in action, they opened the Castle grounds to set-up a hospital run by volunteer nurses or VADs.

The stories were brought alive by looking at objects from the Museum’s collections; a nurses’ uniform from the hospital, a delicate necklace made by one of the wounded soldiers and a field-communion set used on the battlefield. At this point we were joined by members of the Armed Forces community, the 203 Welsh Field Hospital Medics who gave us a completely new take on some of these objects and stories. It just proves that working collaboratively can bring some unexpected and rewarding results. We will continue to work with the Armed Forces in co-curating some of the exhibits in the new galleries at St Fagans but that’s another blog for another day.

We then led the composers and writers on a tour of the Castle and grounds; the old site of the WW1 hospital, the Italian garden where the soldiers recuperated and the greenhouses where the land girls may have worked. Any of these locations could be the setting to perform the arias in the summer of 2015. I think that everyone left with their heads bubbling with ideas. All we can do now is wait.

The pop-up museum was created over two days at the Wales Millennium Centre as part of the Welsh Museums Festival and the Museums Association conference between 9-10 October 2014.

We set up the cases, table, boxes, screen and various cardboard structures on the Thursday before the conference. 

It looked great, but we were all quite nervous.  Would anyone turn up? Would people bring an object in response to our call outs on social media? Would people participate and share their Cardiff stories and memories? Would the huge table at its centre attract visitors or put them off? 

Would Billy the Seal arrive safely?

We were about to find out if our experiment would work…….and thankfully it did!

What worked?

  • 1. The stuff we had already collected.

We were all really glad that we already had some material for the pop-up that provided hooks to show people how they could contribute. The story cards collected at previous workshops kicked things off. They gave people an idea of how they could contribute, and made the Cardiff theme obvious. The voxpops also provided people with another focus and showed that people had already shared their Cardiff story. This encouraged participants to be filmed sharing their story at the pop-up. 

  • 2. Taking photographs of participants

We took a photograph of all participants with an instant camera and pinned them to their story cards. This emphasised the personal aspect and made stories easier to find

  • 3. The big table in the middle with plenty of chairs.

This space really worked. It became a social space where people came together and shared their Cardiff story and a space where strangers started talking to each other. We piled Perspex boxes on top of each other along the middle and gradually filled them with objects over the two days. We encouraged people to write their comments about other people’s stories on post-its and stick them on the boxes. This added another layer to the interpretation. 

  • 4. Using iPads to show social media content 

We had built up interest around the pop-up on social media in the lead up to the pop-up itself, so it was good to continue this momentum. We used two iPads on the table as live labels that showed all tweets with the #popupmuseum #fflachamgueddfa hashtag. We used this as a way of highlighting interesting stories and providing information about what was happening at the pop-up over the 2 days.  We also experimented with iBeacons and placed content about some of the objects on that so that people could access it using their hand held devices. 

  • 5. We invited the Media and the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism! 

To keep the buzz around the pop-up museum going, we managed to generate press interest in the pop-up. The experience was filmed by s4C for Heno and by Cardiff TV. Deputy Minister Ken Skates also came to the pop-up and contributed his Cardiff story. He was really interested in the fact that we had created a museum in 48 hours that anyone could contributed to.

  • 6. Billy the Seal made it! 

Thanks to the huge effort of conservation staff across Amgueddfa Cymru, Billy made it to the pop-up. Billy generated lots of interest and was definitely a big pull to the pop-up. It was useful to have one star object that attracted the curious. Those who knew about Billy’s story couldn’t believe that she was actually there and that it was part of the museum’s collections. And those who didn’t know the story were…confused but intrigued. 

  • 7. Working with Cardiff Story, HLF, and Youth Forum members

You can’t set up a pop-up museum without a team. The input from our Youth Forum members was invaluable, making sure that the processes of the pop-up ran smoothly and making sure that participants knew what to do. Staff members form the Heritage Lottery Fund provided guidance and support throughout the pop-up process. Working with Arran Rees and Lucy Connors from the Cardiff Story and was a great experience and we are already planning to create a pop-up together again in the future. 

We were joined this Saturday by two more of our I Spy…Nature drawing competition winners and their families. The winners were shown around the mollusc (shell), marine invertebrate and vertebrate collections as part of their special behind the scenes tour by museum curators Katie Mortimer-Jones and Jennifer Gallichan. The visitors were able to select draws from the mollusc collections to look in and saw a Giant Clam and a cone shell known as Glory of the Seas (Conus gloriamaris), a once sort after shell found in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, to name but a few. Next onto the fluid store, where we keep our fluid preserved specimens such as marine bristleworms, starfish, crabs, lobsters and fish specimens. Lastly the tour finished up in the Vertebrate store where we keep some of the Museum’s taxidermy and skeleton specimens. After the tour, the winners were given their prizes of natural history goodies from the Museum Shop.