David Anderson's Blog
Happy Birthday Big Pit
Big Pit National Coal Museum celebrates 30 years as a major visitor attraction this year and we celebrated the occasion yesterday in the company of members of the local community who have supported the Museum, staff at Big Pit and the Minister for Culture & Sport John Griffiths who had a tour of the Museum.
Since opening in 1983 Big Pit has welcomed more than 3.5 million people who can go 300 feet underground to find out what life was like for men who worked there. In 1913, one in ten Welsh people were employed in the coal industry and many more were dependent on it for a living – by the end of the 20th century, only one deep mine remained in Wales.
Big Pit employed 1,300 people and produced around a quarter of a million tons of coal a year. The buildings are the same as they were when the mine closed in 1980, but now visitors descend the shaft with a real miner and see what life was like for the thousands of men who worked at the coal face.
The Museum is set in the unique Blaenafon industrial landscape, designated a World Heritage Site in 2000 and is an exciting and informative day out for visitors.
September has crept up on us already and autumn’s well on its way!
It’s been a successful summer across all of our sites, with nearly a quarter of a million visitors being welcomed over August alone across the seven museums. That’s a great achievement and I hope our visitors have enjoyed their experience. We’ve got an exciting line up of exhibitions, events and activities now until Christmas across all seven museums including Peter Blake’s exhibition of works inspired by Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood which will be on show at National Museum Cardiff from 23 November. The exhibition will launch a year-long festival in 2014 – Dylan Thomas 100 – which will mark the centenary of the birth of the poet Dylan Thomas.
Last week I was invited to Bologna in Italy to speak at a two-day final conference of the LEM project "The Learning Museum".
“The Learning Museum” is a network project funded by the Lifelong Learning Programme Grundtvig (2010-2013) which aims to establish a permanent network and web space for museums and adult educators to participate in a learning society and in a knowledge-based Europe.
Seventeen European countries and the United States of America are represented in LEM. Its aim is to create a network of museums and cultural heritage organizations, to ensure that museums play an active role with regard to lifelong learning, and to raise awareness among decision makers at national and European level.
The conference was intended as a meeting place to facilitate networking and develop further collaborations at European level and also an opportunity for participants to discuss the outcomes of the project and share the knowledge developed throughout the three years of its duration, as well as giving a chance to share experiences and exchange ideas with colleagues from all over Europe.
Some interesting ideas emerged. It was striking how many of these involved greater cooperation and consolidation in the face of the financial crisis common to almost all European countries. In the Netherlands, for example, there are two museums associations which will now merge. Central, regional and local government are being encouraged by the sector to coordinate their museum policies. Speakers from the Netherlands said that development of a vision for each museum, before governments decided on them, was essential.
To find out more about the LEM project and the LEM reports go to
Summer holidays means it’s a really busy time for our sites and there’s so much going on at all our museums – something for the whole family so if you’ve visiting one of our seven museums, I do hope you all enjoy a great experience over the next few weeks.
I spent last week up in north Wales and visited the National Eisteddfod in Denbigh for a few days. Amgueddfa Cymru has a stand at the Eisteddfod every year and it’s a great to engage with people and tell them what our sites have to offer. There was a different theme every day of the week and when I was there on Monday the focus was Neanderthal Wales. The connection is that the Pontnewydd and Elwy Valley Caves are in Denbighshire and were the focus of museum excavations years ago. Then on Tuesday we celebrated the artist John Piper and explorer Charles Darwin both of whom were very inspired by Dyffryn Clwyd. It was good to enjoy the cultural festival, meet new people and see some of our heritage partners.
Whilst I was up in north Wales, I also had a chance to visit our National Slate Museum in Llanberis in Snowdonia where I joined Dafydd Roberts and the team there in welcoming Baroness Kay Andrews. Baroness Andrews, who grew up in Tredegar, has just stepped down as Chair of English Heritage, and has now been commissioned by the Welsh Government to write a report by January 2014 on how the cultural sector in Wales can work together more effectively to address poverty.
At Llanberis currently there’s a new exhibition which showcases the life's work of artist Falcon Hildred, documenting the industrial landscapes and buildings of England and Wales. The exhibition, a partnership between the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust Limited, has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
I also went over to Wrexham for the opening of the exhibition of the Mold Gold Cape at Wrexham Museum. They certainly know their Bronze Age artefacts in the area and they’ve done a spectacular job of the exhibition. It’s well worth going to see if you’re in the area.
After a busy week which really tired me out, I have been relaxing by watching Ken Loach's film, The Spirit of '45. Perhaps relaxing is the wrong word to use in response to a powerfully argued and moving tribute to the achievements of the Attlee government, and footage of the slum conditions of pre-War Britain that shows why such changes were so necessary.
The famous Mold Gold Cape comes to Wales
I’m delighted that one of Europe’s most important Bronze Age finds has arrived at National Museum Cardiff this week! The display of the Mold Gold Cape, on loan from the British Museum, was officially opened in a special event on Wednesday by the Minister for Culture & Sports, John Griffiths.
A highlight exhibit at the British Museum, the ceremonial gold cape, found in north Wales, was made around 3,700 years ago during the Early Bronze Age. It’s one of the finest examples of prehistoric sheet and embossed-gold working in Europe. It's craftsmanship and materials reveal the wealth and significance of north east Wales at this time.
The cape was discovered by workmen near Mold in 1833, many years before the establishment of Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales. Having the Mold Gold Cape return to Wales from the British Museum offers a wonderful opportunity for local people and visitors to enjoy and find out more about their heritage and the early past.
The ancient artefact is in Cardiff until 4 August and then goes to Wrexham Museum from 7 August -14 September, as part of Spotlight Tours, a programme of loans organised through the British Museums’ Partnership UK Scheme.
Working in partnership with other museums enables precious artefacts of Welsh origin like this to be more accessible to the people of Wales. The Mold Cape contributes significantly to our understanding of cultural expression and power relations in Early Bronze Age Europe, reflected both in life and in death.
There are activities and events related to the Mold Cape here all month so if you’re in the Cardiff area, or in Wrexham next month, why not come and have a look at this unique artefact?
Supporting Kids in Museums
The launch of the ‘Kids in Museums’ manifesto with the Minister for Culture and Sport John Griffiths and Children’s Commissioner Keith Towler took place at National Museum Cardiff this morning. It was a great event and good to see so many young people involved and supporting this project.
A few weeks ago Maria Miller, the English Culture Secretary, made a speech in which she justified the arts and culture on economic grounds. I was glad to hear John Griffiths challenge this reductionist and limited perspective, by emphasising the social and educational value of museums. We are the largest provider of learning outside the classroom in Wales, and play a key role in many communities across the nation.
Amgueddfa Cymru supports the Kids in Museums Manifesto which pledges to work towards putting the twenty points – from inviting teenagers to hang out at museums to creating a comfortable safe place for children and families – into practice. There is a Welsh language version of the manifesto, produced with support from the Welsh Government.
Something that’s fast becoming a star attraction at National Museum Cardiff is a beautiful bronze sculpture of a galloping horse by the famous 19th century French Impressionist, Edgar Degas. The work, which has found a permanent home alongside other works here, has been accepted in lieu of inheritance tax from the estate of the artist, Lucian Freud, who died in 2011, and allocated permanently to Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum of Wales. The sculpture will be a major addition to our collection, of which we can all be proud.
Last weekend was particularly busy for National Museum Cardiff. We joined up with the BBC and a host of wildlife partners to host the ‘Summer of Wildlife’, a fun day of discovering more about our wildlife and we also supported the Welsh language festival Tafwyl in the grounds of Cardiff Castle with a chance for visitors to see the clogmaker from St Fagans and experience some of our natural history and art collections on our stand. Tafwyl Festival helps Welsh language thrive in the capital and we were more than happy to support this successful event.
At the end of May Amgueddfa Cymru had a very successful presence at both the Urdd Eisteddfod and the Hay Festival.
Over 5000 people attended our stand at the Urdd Eisteddfod in Boncath, north Pembrokeshire, where the focus was on the National Wool Museum, being just half an hour away from the Maes. John Griffiths, Minister for Culture and Sport visited the stand and Stephen Crabb MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire really got stuck into the knitting with the giant knitting needle! At the GwyddonLe science pavilion there was an opportunity to learn more about the archaeology of the Preseli Mountains and the Bluestones with Ken Brassil.
At the Hay Festival, we shared a stand with Cadw, the Royal Commission and the Historical Houses Association under the branding History Wales. We ran a number of activities for children during the week highlighting in particular the 30th birthday of Big Pit: National Coal Museum and craft work from St Fagans. The stand was extremely busy, and it was a great opportunity to work with partner organisations to promote Welsh History. John Griffiths, Minister for Culture and Sport, visited the stand to launch the latest edition of Big Pit’s people’s history magazine, Glo, which was dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Big Pit as a museum.
Our new children’s book ‘Albie the Adventurer: Dinosaur in the Forest’ was launched officially at the festival in an interactive session with children. The story is by Grace Todd, and is based on a workshop run for Foundation Phase children in the Clore Discovery Gallery at National Museum Cardiff, where Albie discovers the sights and sounds of the prehistoric forest! I’m sure the book will charm children and grown-ups alike!
One event which I really enjoyed a few weeks ago was the National Theatre Wales’ production ‘Praxis Makes Perfect’. It was an immersive gig imagining the life of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the millionaire Italian communist who was at the heart of many of the most extraordinary events of the twentieth century. I thoroughly enjoyed it and the show will be going on tour to festivals this summer. I’d definitely recommend! And on the subject of things Italian, I have also been reading The Dark Philosophers by Gwyn Thomas, a Library of Wales publication, about a group of men who meet in an Italian café in an industrial community in the period around World War II. For me, Gwyn Thomas is a real discovery, a powerful writer with (is it just my imagination?) just a touch of Damon Runyon?
It’s May already and I must apologise for my lack of blog posts recently. It’s been a busy time for Amgueddfa Cymru.
I’m delighted that we have ended the year with another set of strong visitor figures attracting 1,745,315 visitors, exceeding 1.7m visitors for the first time ever. In 2012, we celebrated 1.69 million visits as the highest total ever recorded since free entry was introduced in April 2001, and this year we had an extra 55,289 visitors compared to the previous year of year, up by 3.27%.
Amgueddfa Cymru has now achieved record visitor figures for two consecutive years and I am delighted that we’ve succeeded in breaking yet another record this year, which is testimony to the quality of the service delivered by the Museums and the true value of the Welsh Government’s free entry policy.
It’s been a challenging time for the organisation. The current financial climate poses unprecedented challenges for every public sector organisation in Wales and Amgueddfa Cymru is no exception. Amgueddfa Cymru is facing a reduced budget and must find £2.5m in savings over the next three years. We have recently undertaken a period of consultation with staff and partners regarding a proposed new structure for the organisation which will be announced shortly. I’m very grateful for the patience and cooperation of Amgueddfa Cymru staff during this difficult period.
The proposed changes will not affect the day-to-day operations of the seven national museums across Wales. In finding savings, we have given priority to sustaining services for users. Amgueddfa Cymru will continue to offer visitors quality experiences at each of its sites.
Since I last posted on my blog, a new Culture & Sports Minister has been appointed in the Welsh Government, John Griffiths AM whom I had the pleasure of meeting recently. I am very grateful for the support and work of the previous Heritage Minister Mr Huw Lewis over the past few years and I’m really looking forward to working with Mr Griffiths.
It seems like a long time ago now but I was in Chongqing in China at the beginning of March for the opening of our Amgueddfa Cymru exhibition Wales: Land of the Red Dragon at the China Three Gorges Museum. Promoting Wales as a contemporary nation through international work is one of our main priorities and this partnership is an excellent way to give the 30 million people living in the Chongqing region the chance to learn more about Wales’ rich and unique assets in culture, history and the environment.
I recently bought a copy of E.P. Thompson’s William Morris: From Romantic to Revolutionary. It is a few years since I last read anything by E.P. Thompson, and his Customs in Common has long been on my list of future reads. I found the postscript to the 1976 edition, in which he discusses Morris’s place in the history of communism, moving because of the very personal way in which Thompson refers to his own thinking on this subject.
Realities of Devolution
Last week, I was delighted to attend the relaunch of the hugely successful Sharing Treasures by Huw Lewis, our Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage.
Under the initial scheme, local museums were able to apply for grants to put on exhibitions and raise gallery standards in order to be able to borrow national collections from Amgueddfa Cymru for display. Though we remain an integral partner, the scheme has now been extended to allow libraries and archives to also borrow items from the national collections. It also allows museums to apply for grants to develop touring exhibitions as well as apply for a grant more than once so that they can develop successful projects. Importantly, financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund has also been secured for 2012/13 to extend the parameters of the initiative. Many people attended, and we had an interesting day of discussions. I was asked to say a few words, and was glad that I was able to express how important I believe the scheme to be. We as national organizations do not own the national collections, but simply hold them in trust for the people of Wales. We have an ethical responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to them, and this scheme allows us to give more people the opportunity to engage with the national collections.
This ties in nicely with a meeting I attended yesterday - the AHRC Museum Ethics Network Workshop. This was the first of five such workshops, one of which will be held in Cardiff. Yesterday's was held at Leicester at the School of Museum Studies at the University. Many interesting presentations were given about the link between ethics and social justice, and the failure of some museum organisations in the UK to think of ethics in those terms. It opened up the prospect of UK museums rethinking their ethical frameworks with a view of putting more emphasis on public engagement. We are lucky to have such a resource as the School of Museum Studies in the UK. They provide intellectual rigour to museum practice that may otherwise not be addressed.
One other event I wanted to mention was the Great British Art Debate which took place on Saturday. It marked the end of a three-year programme which has involved four gallery organizations across England (Tate Britain, Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, Norfolk Museum and Archaeology Service and Museums Sheffield) working together to explore questions about nationhood, regionalism and artistic identity today through a series of exhibitions and events. The speakers were almost all from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or the English regions. Some speakers strongly challenged the basis for the project as a whole. Indeed, two Scottish speakers challenged the concept of Britishness and, by implication, the authenticity of the name of Tate Britain in the context and the reality of devolution. The speaker from Northern Ireland was equally critical, saying that English art institutions have collected very little art produced by Northern Irish artists who stayed in Belfast during the troubles. They prefer instead to collect work by international artists who may have briefly visited Northern Ireland during that time. Indeed, overall, the day questioned many of the premises on which the project was based. It left me with the sense that there was a growing separation within the cultural world between institutions based in London and the rest of the UK. This may well reflect the realities of devolution.
Chongqing and Wales
Yesterday, I returned from China having spent just under a week in Chongqing and Beijing. Though it wasn't my first visit to China, it was my first as Director General of Amgueddfa Cymru. My visit was timed to coincide with the First Minister's visit to China, and I was part of a small cultural delegation which included Rebecca Matthews, Director of the British Council in Wales. It was an excellent opportunity to meet old friends in China and to make new ones, cementing the growing relationship between both countries. Welsh Government staff and British Council staff had worked hard on the programme, and I am extremely grateful for their support in making all the arrangements.
Having hosted the successful Dazu Rock Carvings exhibition here in Cardiff earlier this year, much of my discussions in Chongqing focused on delivering an exhibition from Wales to China in 2013. There is a great deal of interest in China about Wales's culture and history, and it will be an excellent opportunity for us to celebrate our heritage internationally. Three staff members are going to Chongqing in early November to progress these discussions, and though plans are an early stage, there is a great deal of excitement about the proposed exhibition already.
I had a number of interesting meetings during my trip. Everyone was extremely welcoming, and there were discussions about exchanging not only objects but also sharing expertise through a series of staff exchanges. China is investing a great deal in Museums at present, and many new Museums are being built. There is therefore a need for more curators and conservators, and sharing skills with international partners is important in order to be able to achieve this.
Amgueddfa Cymru has a MoU with the Three Gorges Museum in Chongqing, and it was fantastic to be able to visit the museum. We presented as a gift to the museum a ceramic teapot by Walter Keeler, and the First Minister was present. We had a fascinating discussion over lunch with the Director and his staff, where we compared the history of Western socialism in the UK in the post war period with Chinese socialism.
During all of our meetings with senior politicians and officials in both Chongqing and Beijing, all hosts emphasised the importance of culture and education as a basis for a strong relationship between Wales and China. This provides a number of opportunities for Wales, but also provides a challenge in this economic climate as funding will be needed to meet expectations!
Inspiring our thinking
I have just returned from a very interesting trip to Stockholm, as part of our development of the Making History project at St Fagans. Along with other colleagues from Amgueddfa Cymru, we went over to look at museums that may offer some inspiration for the redevelopment. Our Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage - Huw Lewis - was in Stockholm at the same time, and joined us in looking at some of the museums.
At Skansen Museum we were met by John Brattmyhr (Director) and Kerstin Holm Soderkvist (Learning Officer). We learnt about how they'd gone about trying to seek more corporate sponsorship and also how they've expanded their catering facilities. This is a challenge we face at St Fagans! I was greatly impressed by the scale of the site, and the fact that they have more than 30 staff looking after the programme of events and educational services that are run at the museum.
We then went on to Vasa Museum. It has a huge impact when you see it for the first time, and has an interesting history. It is a ship that sank on its maiden voyage in Stockholm harbour. It displays some of the personal possessions that were recovered as well as some of the skeletons. The way they are displayed allow for more very powerful personal stories to be told. They have even facially reconstructed some of the skeletons, which is particularly striking. To copy with the fact that they receive double their anticipated visitors, a new entrance is being build. A similar challenge once again for us at St Fagans!
From a personal perspective, I was grateful that my vegan diet was catered for without any problem. I thought that the dinner arranged by the British Embassy in an Italian restaurant might have proved particularly difficult but the chef cooked me a lovely vegan dish. I became vegan for health reasons rather than as a conscious decision, but I must admit that I feel so much better for it. And I'm trying some new and interesting dishes as a result!
Work on St Fagans redevelopment continues
At the end of last week, I spent a day with the St Fagans Interpretation Group looking at desgin plans for the proposed new galleries. It's exciting to see the project progressing, as we now start discussing what the galleries may look like and what exhibitions may be included. Currently, we are exploring having two galleries - one about the Story of Wales and one about ways of life. We also need to ensure that there is ample space for a temporary exhibitions area. There are so many interesting and important stories to be told, and we're aware that not all of them can be included as part of a permanent gallery. Therefore, it is crucial that we have a high quality space to host a whole array of exhibitions. Personally, I'd like to see at some point in the future another exhibition about childhood in Wales as well as the political history of Wales. The possibilities are endless, and we're happy to listen to any ideas you may have as well!
Over the weekend, I did take some time to myself and went to Glyndebourne to see a production of Handel's Rinaldo. The singing was superb and it was a fantastic production, up to to the high standard one would expect at Glyndbourne. It was, however, quite an alternative production. The Director had decided to update the production so that iwas based around boys vs girls schools in the mid twentieth century. Rinaldo the hero became an adolescent schoolboy, bullied by his peers and transported into a fantasy world, where he then became a hero. Though it was interesting, I must admit that I prefer Handel's version but nevertheless I enjoyed the humour of the production in Glyndebourne.
Plenty going on!
As you can imagine, it is a busy time at all of our sites now that it's the school holidays. It's great to see all of the museums full of people, and since entry is free, it's an affordable day out for all of the family. We've also been busy with events, such as our presence at the National Eisteddfod in Wrexham. Not only did the sun shine on most days, but there was also a wonderful atmosphere. Amgueddfa Cymru had a stand, and there was a lot of interest in the exhibition we had on display relating to the area. It was an opportunity for us to encourage visitors to visit the Wrexham museum, where we have a presence, as well as visit all of the national museums of Wales.Though the main focus of the week was on public consultation regarding the St Fagans redevelopment, we also had a successful launch of the latest issue of Glo magazine. The Minister, Huw Lewis, attended and helped us launch the issue and the response to the content has been fantastic. Having a presence at national events such as the eisteddfod is crucial to our work, as it allows people who don't live near any of our sites to experience the national collections and engage in our work.
On my way back from Wrexham, I visited the People's History Museum in Manchester. I was really impressed by the way it told political history from the perspective of people. The way the graphics were illustrated worked extremely well, and gave me some ideas for the redevelopment of St Fagans.
We were very privileged to be able to host artists from Chongqing in China at National Museum Cardiff as part of the Chongqing in Wales week. The official opening took place here as well, and it wonderful to meet some friends from China who'd helped deliver the Dazu rock carvings exhibition earlier in the year. Visitors were impressed by the demonstrations by the artists as well as the photographic exhibition. It is hoped that this will be an annual event, and we hope to be able to welcome other artists from Chongqing in the future.
David Anderson's Blog