Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales


Y Garreg Fawr from Waunfawr in Gwynedd was built in 1544, and is a fine example of a Snowdonian house. At the time, these homes were some of Wales’s finest and represented the beginnings of the modern home we know today. Prior to this date, the wealthy Welsh lived in timber-framed hall-houses. These were often single-story buildings comprised of three bays in a linear arrangement: a ‘service’ bay of a dairy and larder, a ‘solar’ – which was the bedroom - and in-between was a large hall with a central hearth, and was open to the rafters. Although Y Garreg Fawr has a hall, service end and solar, it represents a radical departure from the previous medieval plan by introducing some key developments. Choosing to build in stone allowed the creation of a pair of effective chimneys - one on each gable. These in turn allowed the creation of a first-floor featuring heated, smoke-free rooms.

Y Garreg Fawr (The Great Rock) was named after the large exposed rock outcrop behind the house. Two other Snowdonian type houses share a similar important-sounding name. Both are called ‘The Great House’ – Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant and Tŷ Mawr Nantlle – names that highlight their physical grandeur as well as the high social standing of their owners. Y Garreg Fawr was is a rare survival of national significance, but by 1976 (432 years later) it was barely recognisable and in a serious state of disrepair. At the time, the only way to ensure its survival was to move it stone by stone, some 165 miles, to St. Fagans National History Museum where it could be rebuilt. 40 years later it is undergoing a programme of restoration. 

A recent inspection of Y Garreg Fawr revealed that the inner surface of its walls had been rendered with cement. This is an out-dated practice that is not in keeping with current methodologies. Work is now underway to remove the cement and re-place it with lime mortar, which should allow the building to breathe better, and allow it to stand for several more centuries. Y Garreg Fawr is now closed for a number of months to allow this work to continue.

Don't worry no violence was involved.  It was the turn of Llainfadyn this week, our quarrymen’s cottage from Gwynedd, to receive a clean and make over from our Historic Interior and Conservation Volunteer team.  It was a big task so thanks to everyone involved. This included stripping the beds and giving everything including the feather mattresses a good airing and beating to remove a winters worth of dust and dirt.  As long as the textiles are strong enough this is still a very effective method of removing grime without the aid of modern appliances.

We also held a competition between a modern broom and a traditional one made from hazel twigs (that all important witches’ accessory at Halloween).  To help protect the collections on display it's important we try and reduce the amount of dust and dirt being brought into the houses by our thousands of visitors each year.  Our first line of defence to achieve this is the cobbles outside, these help dislodge the grit and dirt from peoples' shoes before they even enter the building, but for these to work the cobbles need to be clean and not clogged up with dirt. So one of our first important tasks was to clean the stones outside.

So which broom won?  The traditional of course, with its long twiggy brush it was the best at dislodging the dirt from between the cobbles.   This job would certainly have been an everyday task for most households in the past.

Our second line of defence to keep the dust down is the rag rug, often found in cottages of this period.  These were made from scraps of material or worn out clothes and blankets, so as well as providing much needed comfort and colour they were great at trapping dirt.  They could then be picked up, taken outside and beaten with a carpet beater to remove the grime.  We are currently making one for Llainfadyn, unfortunately the odd hail storm meant that Jane and Emma had to find seats by the open fire to carry on their work. 

Sorry about the awful pun in the title. But, yes, it's that time of year, the sun is out, spring's officially here and it's getting warmer. Fantastic you may say, but for our Conservators and Volunteers a new battle is about to begin!  As well as our lovely lambs and piglets, less desirable creatures are stirring. These are the insect pests, such as moths, carpet beetles and woodworm that if left unchecked would quite happily eat our museum and its collections!

This week the volunteer conservation team were introduced to the enemy, in the natural world these insects perform an essential task, but in the confines of our historic houses, or anyone's home in fact, they can cause untold damage especially to items made from wool, fur, feathers, leather, paper and wood.

We have decided to go for a two pronged attack. The first is to re-introduce traditional deterrent methods.  Last year we worked with the gardening team collecting and drying a range of aromatic plants such as Tansy, Wormwood, Rue, Rosemary and Lavender traditionally used to deter insects.  From the selection grown in our gardens we have created the extremely potent St.Fagans blend.

Now we are devising ways to deploy our deterrent in sufficient quantities that might have an effect.  For this we found tights ideal for the task!  Yes, that's correct tights. These are especially useful for items of clothes hung up on display, they enable us to place the aromatic plants in the more inaccessible areas of a garment, such as down sleeves!

The second method of attack is of course good old fashioned housekeeping. Spring is the time to open up the house after a long winter and give everything a good clean, or in our case a good beating.

I volunteer one day per week with National Museum Cardiff’s Preventive Conservation team who is responsible for the care of the museum’s collections.

So what constitutes a typical day in the life of a Preventive Conservation volunteer? Typical is not a word that you can really use because it is pretty rare that we’ll be doing the same thing two weeks in a row. Looking after museum collections involves many diverse jobs.

My first ever task as a volunteer was to replace the silica gel in some of the object storage boxes in one of the Archaeology stores. Each of the plastic boxes contains a unique object. The silica gel keeps the object dry, which prevents metals corroding, for example helmets and swords. It’s pretty exciting to work in a museum store, see different parts of the past and know that you had a hand in preserving objects for the future.

What else has this volunteer done? Spot checking for pests in the Entomology store was a pretty strange experience. We look over the insect collections for signs of pest damage. Yes, the dead insects in the store are at risk of being eating by live insects! It really gives this sense of awe and then sadness when you see beautiful insects, both large and small, that you’d never imagined you’d see in real life and then you spot parts where they’ve been eaten by a pest. Looking over the collection regularly, and spotting pest activity early, means that specimens are not damaged by pests.

Most recently we’ve been moving some of the silver and jade objects in an Art store into new storage cases. If you ever get the chance to do this let me give you some advice; don’t think about the value of the objects you’re moving. If you do then you will be nervous. Instead focus on how amazing these objects are and how you’re helping to continue their story by making sure they are stored correctly. The museum objects will stick around a while longer because of your help.

In closing I only have this to say; if you ever get the opportunity to volunteer at a museum you should do it. It may end up giving you some of the best experiences of your life. That’s what it did for me.

Stefan Jarvis.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here. 

A number of months ago, I told you that we are currently busy preparing objects for our new galleries.  The most recent one to land on our work table is a Memorial sampler.  It has an embroidered inscription, carried out in cross-stitch using silk thread, which reads: ‘In loving memory of / Elizabeth Morgan, / formerly of Llanishan / who died Dec 6th 1885 / Aged 30 years / and was interred at / Glyn-Taff Cemetery / A Ray of light from God’s own light - / She beamed and made of life the best / She touched the earth and made it bright / She blest us all and went to rest.’

The sampler was donated by the great-grand daughter of Elizabeth Morgan, T. A. Bennett, from Pen-y-Graig, Rhondda. 

Memorial sampler, for Gweithdy, F80.183

The interesting thing about this sampler is that the ground is not textile but is made from card punched through with a gridwork of holes, through which the embroidery is worked.  As it is made from both textile and paper elements this has given us an opportunity to tackle its conservation as a cross-disciplinary project; drawing on our respective expertise in both textile and paper conservation.

Looking at the object in its frame, the senior conservator archives and I could already see that the sampler had been badly mounted in the past, having been adhered directly to a rigid card backing.  This has been partly responsible for causing splits in the card ground as the unevenly applied adhesive restricted its natural expansion and contraction through changes in environmental humidity levels.  Our challenge here will be to devise a method of removing the embroidery from this unsuccessful backing and to come up with a new method of stabilising and mounting it, so that it can be displayed safely.  As we get stuck into the project, we shall give you updates on how the work is progressing.