Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales


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.

The partners in this project are:


Archaeological-Ecological Centre Albersdorf, Germany

Archeon, Netherlands

C.I. De Calafell, Catalonia

EXARC, Netherlands

Exeter University, UK

Fotevikens Museum, Sweden

Hunebedcentrum, Netherlands

Kierikki Stone Age Village, Finland

Parco Archeologico e Museo all’aperto della Terramara di Montale, Italy

Viminacium, Serbia


And, of course, St Fagans National History Museum.


The project itself consists of three main strands: conferences and workshops, staff exchanges and activities.

Bronze Age house, Modena

OpenArch meeting in a reconstructed Bronze Age house in Modena, Italy

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:

Bryn Eryr roundhouses

The OpenArch partners meeting outside Bryn Eryr, our new roundhouses in May 2015.

Lecturer in Cathays Park

Mark Winter from the Ancient Technology Centre giving an inspiring talk on his organisation's child-centred philosophy, May 2015.

Werner Pfeifer, prehistoric craft specialist

Werner Pfiefer from the Archaeological-Ecological Centre Albersdorf demonstrating prehistoric crafts at the St Fagans craft festival in May 2015.

The OpenArch project is funded by an EU Culture grant.
This experiment has been made possible by the OpenArch project - a 5 year collaboration between 11 partners to improve standards in archaeological open-air museums.


Things that go bump in the Main Hall…and the Herbarium

If Natural Sciences curators were of a superstitious nature, we might be feeling a little nervous, having welcomed 3113 visitors through the front door during our special Halloween Open Day.  We’re not sure what sort of omen back-to-back thirteens portend, but on the day itself they spelled meeting lots of new people and showing them some of the fascinating, creepy and sometimes deadly specimens from our natural history collections. 

Those brave enough to don special glasses and venture into the ‘Cave of Mystery’ were rewarded with a spectacular sight: minerals that look ghostly grey or white in normal light, but which glow eerily in pumpkin orange and gooey green under UV (ultra-violet) light.  For visitors wanting to see even more menacing minerals, there were poisonous ores, skeletal quartz, ghost crystals and goblin ore on display.

Slugs and snails, and creepy creature tales; that’s what our mollusc collections display was made of.  Many people were no doubt lured to this stand by the eerily back-lit cuttlefish, centrepiece of an intriguing array of shells, pickled specimens and models.  And if two dozen life-size slugs didn’t get you in the mood for Halloween, how about taking a closer look at a Pumpkin snail, ghost slug or South African Cannibal Snail?

We sometimes think that our entomology curators have one of the easiest jobs at Halloween.  Their wooden specimen drawers full of pinned insects (with the occasional massive spider or centipede thrown in for good measure) hold a fascination for many people.  Love them or loathe them, these invertebrates seem to draw everyone in to take a closer look.  This year, our insect experts went one better, and alongside the dried specimens of Death’s-head hawk moth and tarantula, they gave visitors the chance to have a close encounter with live cockroaches!  And not just any cockroaches. Madagascar hissing cockroaches, which, as the name suggests, make a hissing sound when they are disturbed.  Judging by the crowds that surrounded the cockroach tank all day, lots of our visitors were keen to touch or even hold one of the surprisingly docile creatures…or perhaps just to get as close as they dared.

Not to be outdone by cockroaches, on the palaeontology stand we presented visitors with ‘The biggest creepy-crawly ever to have lived on land’.  Not the real thing, sadly, but the next best thing: Arthur the Arthropleura, star of BBC’s The One Show and a life-size model of a giant millipede that lived 300 million years ago, and which reached over 2 metres in length.  To bring Arthur’s ‘coal forest’ habitat to life, we displayed beautiful fossil Coal Measures plants from the collections, alongside living ferns, horsetails and clubmoss.

Visitors to the National Herbarium were in for a real sensory treat when they entered the ‘Spooky Herbarium Orchard’.  A lovely apple aroma filled the air, as visitors got to see 40 varieties of everyone’s favourite Halloween fruit.  These were part of a larger display of 519 varieties that had starred at the recent National Botanic Garden of Wales’s ‘Apple Weekend’.  And for those who dared explore the atmospheric graveyard, our botany curators were on hand to help them discover some sinister-looking fungi and the spookier side of apples - did you know there are varieties called Bloody Ploughman, Red Devil and Catshead, or that if you throw an apple peel over your shoulder it will form the initial of your future love?

Our curators had a frighteningly good day, and we can’t wait to think up some more spooky spectacles for next Halloween.

Perspective of a gap year intern

As a gap year student, one is constantly reminded to find a healthy balance between leisure and useful activities. My favourite kind of balance has always been the kind where one leans as far as possible off the side of the bed without falling off, but I was determined to achieve something more lasting in my first period of freedom from education, perhaps reinvigorating my past interest in life sciences (something which had been left moribund by seven years of National Curriculum biology). Almost on cue, I came upon an internship at the National Museum of Wales, where I could undertake the documentation of a mollusc collection donated to the Museum by an eminent conchologist, an authority on shells, Ted Phorson.

A fantastical microscopic world

Coming upon Ted Phorson’s excellent yet bewildering mollusc collection after a summer of agreeable idleness was something of a jarring experience, as the complexity and the scale of the task ahead of me was (and still is) vast. The as-yet-unsorted material spans some twenty boxes of varying size, each containing unknown hundreds of regimented specks that, under the lens of a powerful microscope, reveal themselves as minute and fantastical shells marshalled into graded rows by size and species. Each sample of specimens requires a unique record to be written, a process that entails much cross-checking of names and an even greater amount of sifting through the abstruse catalogues and index card systems that accompany the collection. Slides must be cleaned and specimens remounted; some samples of shells from the extreme depths of the North Atlantic, two miles down, needed to be identified from scratch, a daunting task in itself.

A Kafkaesque catalogue

After three weeks amid the boxes I have become familiar with the eccentricities of Ted Phorson’s organisational system, but at the start the reams of papers seemed near-impenetrable. The collections catalogues are a case in point. Containing the full list of every specimen collected at every location visited, the catalogues read from left to right as in any normal book, but the numbering system used to reference specimens to their location runs from right to left: locality Z3 is at the beginning of the series, while a9 is at the end. I have no idea why the list starts (or ends) with a9, as opposed to a1, or why some of the locations have two letters in their code instead of one; over the last weeks I have found myself going in circles from specimen to slide to index card and back again, until all the hand-typed lettering swims together in a surreal wash of Kafkaesque confusion. Despite the seeming chaos, however, the organisation of the collection is impeccable, with every specimen attributable to an exact locality, date, and grid reference (eventually). Any problems I have encountered are all my own, which underlines how crucial documenting the collection really is – with an explicable digital record system, it will be considerably easier for the shells and other organisms to be studied by museum staff and visiting experts.

Phorson’s eccentricities

Phorson’s collection is most certainly worthy of study. His technique, of picking through individual samples of sand under a microscope, allowed him to capture the smallest of shells. It was a painstaking process, as a note in the catalogue reveals: “The lower (finer) fraction (of approx. 150gms) was found to contain abundant small molluscs of generally good quality and an abundance of excellent foraminifera and ostracoda… The sorting and picking of this fraction involved many weeks of work”. Not content with mollusc shells alone, Ted Phorson also extracted thousands of foraminifera and ostracods (shelled amoeba relatives and minute crustaceans, respectively), as well fossilised spores from the Coal Measures, fragments of insects, tiny shrimp-like organisms and embryonic starfish; all these minute specimens were affixed to cardboard microscope slides with glue, perfectly aligned for easy examination. Perhaps the most notable slides are those that contain growth series, charting the growth of a shell from the egg upwards; these form an invaluable resource for the identification and study of juvenile and even embryonic shells, a difficult task for which very little scientific literature is available. To compile these physical records of organic growth, Phorson must have worked backwards from the largest to the very smallest, affixing each in perfect order and orientation to create meticulous and minute displays, artful despite their serious scientific bent, exquisite to behold.

We’ve only just begun

My first stint with the collection has lasted for three weeks, and it has been a frustrating, fascinating, and enlightening experience. At the end of it, I have completed some 400 records, a box and a half of slides, and my understanding of mollusc shells and the process of curating a complex and scientific collection is considerably richer. There is a lot more work to be done, however, and I will be coming back to the museum in the new year to continue the task, all things permitting. Thanks are certainly due to my sponsors, the Conchological Society of Great Britain & Ireland, whose kind support has allowed me to eat during my stay in Cardiff, and to the Museum itself, for trusting me with its irreplaceable scientific resources, which I hope I have done justice to.

Learn more about the project here: Curation of a British Shell Collection

We've all heard of pumpkins as part of the Halloween celebrations these days. But this isn't the only fruit or vegetable associated with the festival, known as Calan Gaeaf in Wales (meaning the eve of the winter kalend). When I was younger, I used to carve a swede. Some customs involve nuts and seeds. But what about the apple? This fruit had its place among the customs of Calan Gaeaf in the past.

Calan Gaeaf, was a festival to mark the end of the summer season, and the beginning of the winter season when day to day tasks changed with the light and the weather. Weaker animals were also slaughtered at this time. It was believed that spirits were abroad on this night. Bonfires would be lit, and young people could put aside their daily tasks for a day to build them during the daylight and light them after dark. Apples and potatoes would be roasted in the fire, then eaten in its light. But as the fire died down, it was time to run towards home before the Hwch ddu Gwta (tailess blach sow) or the Ladi Wen (white lady)!

An aspect of Calan Gaeaf was divination, being a spirit-night along with May Day Eve and St John’s Eve where it was also present. Where people tried to peer into the future, mainly to find out who your future husband or wife could be! Apples were used for this, by peeling the apple and throwing the peel over your shoulder then looking at how it landed, whichever letter it most resembled was the first letter of your future husband or wife’s name.

In some parts of Wales, like Dyffryn Tywi, the house look very similar to Christmas time and would be decorated with evergreens. The Wassail bowl would be in use, again also a custom at Christmas. It was tradition to have a bright fire in the house, probably linked to the custom of having a bonfire, and apples would be roasted above it. They would then be put in the Wassail bowl along with warm beer, sugar, spices and currents or biscuits.

Perhaps a little more familiar is the custom of bobbing for apples in tubs of water, with hands tied behind the back using just the mouth. In some parts of Wales, the apple would be hung from the ceiling on a string. Sometimes also, a stick would be stuck to the rope and the apple would be on one end, and on the other end would be a lit candle!

It’s possible that apples were a part of the festivities because of its proximity to harvest, but it could also be as simple as the fact that apples were easily available that time of year. Either way, remember the apple this year, you could even get a glimpse into the future!

Thank you to everyone who voted in our Christmas card completion this year and thank you to our curators, librarians and archivists across our seven Museums who delved deep into the collections to come up with new ideas.

These are the seven winners. We will be going to print very soon so keep an eye on the online shop. Or pop into any of our shops where they will be on sale along with this year’s Museum calendar and lots of other great Christmas gift ideas.