Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales

Home

Everyone knows that museums don't allow visitors to do anything, right? You mustn't touch, eat, smoke, take photos; rucksacks are banned, as are balloons (!) and mobile phones. What's going on here? Are you even allowed to breath?! Well, actually, if you must breath then please don't do it near the objects...

Joking aside, all those rules are part of our efforts to ensure that the objects on display will remain in top condition for many years to come. Things decay - that is the way of the world. Museum conservators try to halt that decay for as long as possible.

For example, colours fade in bright light. I have a pair of my daughter's first shoes on my car dashboard which were once a vivid red. Now, after many years exposure to sunlight, they are a faded pink. To avoid the same fate for the museum objects in our care we limit light levels and have UV filters in our galleries, and we ask you not to use a flash when taking photographs.

Smoking is banned in museums because the smoke from cigarettes contains sticky tarry substances that can settle on objects and are very difficult (and expensive) to clean off. We don't really like balloons and rucksacks because they sometimes get entangled with objects and then pull or push them off their plinth, or cause parts to break off and again, this causes expensive conservation jobs, if the object can be fixed at all.

Touching is usually not desired for similar reasons, but also because your hands leave oils on surfaces; these are contained naturally in the skin. If many people touch the same surface over many years it will show as dirt.

There are exceptions to the "no-touch-rule": if you go up to our gallery number one at National Museum Cardiff you will see the Jenkins Vase on display. This marble object was originally a Roman well-head and it depicts the story of Paris, son of Priam of Troy, and Helen. During the 1770s the well-head was converted into a decorative vase. While we ask you not to touch the vase itself, there is a marble touchpad next to it in the shape of two hands. One hand is behind glass and pristinely white; the other hand has been touched by generations of visitors, and the effect of this touching can be seen clearly.

We also have other opportunities for hands-on activities, for example in our Clore Discovery Gallery, and during events. We keep parts of our collections specifically for people to touch and interact with, but we do ask you to respect our efforts to maintain the collections and preserve them for the enjoyment of future generations.

Our first public event as part of this project will be this coming Saturday, 27th June 2015, at National Museum Cardiff. We will provide information and raise awareness on the threats faced by cultural heritage. In the afternoon, various speakers will give short, 15-minute talks on a variety of subjects. One of the speakers is Dr Toby Thacker, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, Cardiff University, School of History, Archaeology and Religion.

Toby will be talking about Verdun in France. This is where the most intense fighting between the French and German armies took place in 1916, and ever since it has been the most iconic event of the First World War for the French. Around the town of Verdun a huge area has been declared as ‘terre sacrée’, or hallowed ground, and left as it was after the battle. This area includes several shattered villages, now deserted, and upwards of thirty different forts, many of which were badly damaged by shell fire from both sides during the conflict.

Some, such as Fort Douamont, are now kept as sites for tourists, school parties, and researchers to visit. The fort itself is mainly underground, but the steel gun turrets projecting above ground show extensive damage from shells and bullets. The earth around them is littered with shell holes, with fragments of metal and barbed wire, and the concrete emplacements are suffering from shell damage, and now from weathering. The whole site poses complex questions about memory, conservation, and heritage. More to come on Saturday!

Accidents happen: we drop our favourite coffee cup in the kitchen and it shatters into a million pieces; parking the car, we misjudge the distance to that bollard and, oops, scratch the car; the faulty television overheats and catches fire. We usually try to protect ourselves against such accidents by assessing the risk, and mitigate against risk to help us avoid accidents. We install smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and emergency stairs to help us get out of a burning building should the worst happen.

Our immediate thought in the event of a disaster is, quite rightly, the preservation of life. But objects that mean something to us are often a victim of disasters, too. This may be the family photographs getting lost in a house fire. Or it could be an entire historic building, which is important to the local or even national history. The very recent fire at Clandon Park House in April 2015 illustrates how quickly an important part of British social and parliamentary history can be destroyed (the Onslow family, whose estates this was, provided three speakers to the House of Commons over the centuries).

What if heritage is destroyed not by accident, but entirely purposefully? In 2013, a construction company in Belize destroyed a Maya pyramid to turn it into gravel for road fill. The pyramid was 2,300 year old – millennia of heritage, memory and civilisation were destroyed, incredibly, because the ancient structure provided a cheap and easy source of building material.

At other times, heritage – monuments, buildings, statues, or even individual objects – are the target of anger. In post-communist Eastern Europe, statues of Stalin or Lenin are being removed as symbols of power of a by-gone era. Palmyra, the prosperous Assyrian city in today’s Syria, has temples 2,200 years old, was first destroyed by the Romans in 273 AD, by the Timurids in 1400, and is now threatened once again with becoming a casualty of war and ideologies.

Whether you agree with the symbols and ideologies of the people who came before you, our own being is born from previous historic events. Our music, stories, architecture, even our state of government would be nothing without the histories that led up to them. To make sense of our modern world we need to remember – remember positive events for the good they are, and negative events so we can avoid dark hours of history repeating themselves. Ultimately, the past informs our present.

In this project, funded by Cardiff University Engagement Seed Funding, we explore the effect of armed conflict on stone surfaces, emergency planning and heritage salvage, strategies for post-conflict remediation, and construction of memories of WWI or post-communist Eastern Europe.

Dr Lisa Mol (Early Career Lecturer, Cardiff University, School of Earth and Ocean Sciences) works on the impact of armed warfare on stone surfaces, which links to heritage conservation and long-term strategies for post-conflict remediation. Lisa asks people to shoot with guns at pieces of building stone to study what happens on impact.

Building on his recently published monograph on the construction of memory of the First World War, and on sites of memory in Eastern Europe, Dr Toby Thacker (Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, Cardiff University, School of History, Archaeology and Religion) will cover the contested role of damaged historical sites in the construction of memory.

Dr Christian Baars (Senior Preventive Conservator, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales) is a member of the Welsh Government’s Emergency Planning Network Wales; he ensures the long-term preservation of museum collections, has experience working with the emergency services and will highlight the importance of preserving heritage for future generations while addressing the issues of looting and illicit trade in cultural objects.

If you are interested in this subject please follow our blog and come along to one of our events at National Museum Cardiff this summer.

We would like to offer volunteers the opportunity to get involved in caring for the museum collections on open display in the historic houses. We have a huge number of objects, including items made from pottery, glass, textiles, paper, wood and leather, all of which need constant care and repair.


We plan to use traditional housekeeping techniques as well as modern conservation methods to help keep our collection looking good.  No previous experience is required, all training will be provided.


New facilities are also being created for our housekeeping volunteers, providing a comfortable area to work as well as relax.


If you are interested in joining us, please follow this link to the application form and we look forward to hearing from you.
This is a pilot project so even if the initial days we offer are not suitable, please still register your interest as more opportunities will arise in the future.

We are currently recruiting housekeeping volunteers at St.Fagans to help look after the displays in the historic houses and Castle. This is a new scheme that is open to anyone who would like to get involved and learn more about traditional housekeeping techniques. Many of which still have a use today, such as using natural herbs and flowers to repel moths from precious woollen jumpers.


With your help we would also like to enhance the interpretation of the buildings by putting more of the collections on display and reintroduce traditional crafts to create replica items, such as rag rugs, baskets and wicker carpet beaters.


Training will be provided, so no previous experience is required, all we ask in return is a few hours of your time a week.  This is a pilot project, so even if the days currently on offer are not suitable please do still get in contact and register your interest.


As part of the project we have converted one of the cottages at Llwyn yr Eos farm into a base for housekeeping volunteers, with studios and a comfortable place to relax.


If you are interested in becoming a housekeeping volunteer please follow this link and we look forward to hearing from you.