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A Radical Collection

I'm content when I'm rummaging through old records, photographs or documents. Gleaning through 'stuff' is an unusual pleasure now that I work in the Digital dept, my day-to-day work mostly bereft of bits of paper.

I love the feel of ruffling through collections; whether it's a pile of vinyl, a card catalogue, or a box of old letters and tickets from the last century (it's scary to say that: "I went to a Levellers gig in the last century".)

Nearest and dearest to me are the Screen and Sound Archive at the National Library (where my Father worked until his retirement), and the Archives at St Fagans National History Museum. At St Fagans, the history of those early, radical curators, the background noises they capture, the dialects and the voices have had me in awe for almost a decade now.

It's also a relatively egalitarian collection, that notes the value of women's histories and makes space for us to tell our stories in our own words, to share our songs, recipes, beliefs and superstitions. Paper history doesn't match up somehow, where our voices oftentimes get squished to the margins and footnotes. It must be said that it isn't a completely intersectional collection, though efforts have been made in recent years to address this, for example, in recording stories from LGBT people.

My Grandmother's Voice

I will never forget finding my Grandmother's voice in the archive. She died when I was very young and so I don't remember very much about her, apart from what I've picked up from photos and from her poetry.

Nancy Hughes Ffordd Deg Bach © R I Hughes
My Grandmother in 1926 © R I Hughes

She was an excellent storyteller, and it was a privilege to receive a CD of her telling a few tales. Her voice had been there, kept safe all along - and I was bowled over, not just by her turn of phrase and sense of humour, but by the noises my Grandfather was making in the background as he tinkered around. His voice was not as deep as the one I'd committed to memory, and unlocked a drawerfull of memories besides.

This encounter further convinced me that archives deserve to be recognised as inherently meaningful collections, to be treated not as a supporting cast, but as whole collections which deserve pride of place alongside archaeological objects and artwork in our museums.

The Archive Today

I've been working with the team for a while - Richard (@archifSFarchive) who is part of the @DyddiadurKate team, and now with Lowri and Meinwen, who look after the manuscripts and sound archive. I've been working with them on how to blog, so hopefully we'll see a bit more of the life of those collections online soon. 

Within the digital department, we're busy revamping our pages on Welsh traditions and folksongs. While that work is going on, I've been looking in more detail at how we could potentially reach a wider audience by sharing sound clips on social platforms.

Sharing Sound Socially

The platforms we currently run - twitter, facebook and tumblr - seemed too ephemeral somehow.

Tweets don't live long enough, especially since we have so many accounts running in St Fagans; and the data shows us that our facebook fans are more interested in our events programme than our collections. Something as focussed as oral history or folk music could easily get lost or miss its mark.

So, I asked Gareth and Rhodri about their experiences of sharing music on soundcloud, bandcamp etc. I decided to create a package our of existing digitised material using bandcamp, and to release them all in one go, father than drip-feed them on the blog or on twitter.

One of the lovely things about bandcamp is the ability to add more information, like sheet music, lyrics and the history of the recording, and that I'm able to package things in an 'album' style. I was also really keen to use the 'pay if you like' function to see if we could open up a small donations stream that could be evaluated in the future.

Download 'O'r Archif'

Here it is then, a selection of folk songs, recorded from 1960 onwards by our archive at St Fagans: O'r Archif: Caneuon Gwerin

Most of the recordings were made by Roy Saer. The sheet music and sound was arranged by Meinwen Ruddock-Jones in the archive, and additional research carried out by Emma Lile. The cover for the collection is held in our art department, and is attributed to the travelling artist W J Champan.

I used Canva to tie together the older scans of the sheet music, and to add a word or two about the archive's history. If there are any errors, therefore, they are mine! Enjoy, share, sing, donate and experiment - and if you have any feedback, please pop it in the comments!

Open Doors is an event organised by Cadw (the Welsh Government’s historic environment service). The idea behind the event is to offer people the opportunity to visit a variety of sites important to the culture and history of Wales. The highlight of the event is the opportunity to visit places that are not normally, or are infrequently, open to the public.

The National Collections Centre, Nantgarw, is part of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, and houses thousands of interesting and important objects that are not on display. Although not normally open to the general public we have always offered access to researchers, and also to various groups and societies. Staff at the National Collections Centre have always seen the importance of opening up the site to allow visitors access to view some of these objects and to see the work that is carried out by staff on site.

We are always looking for new ways to get visitors on site, to encourage people to learn about what we do, and provide more access to the collections in store. Therefore this year at one of our site meetings we decided that we would get involved in Open Doors. We will therefore be open as part of Open Doors on Wednesay 30th September 2015, and will be running tours at 10.00, 11.00, 12.00, 2.00 and 3.00. Each tour will last about 45 minutes and visitors will be able to take a closer look at some of the collections held on site. One of the highlights of the tour will be the chance to see the transport collection of bicycles, motorbikes, cars (including three examples of the Welsh manufactured Gilbern car), buses and even an air sea rescue helicopter.

Booking is essential for these tours. Please ring us on 029 2057 3560 or 029 2057 3583 to book a place, or find out further information. You can also email us on industry@museumwales.ac.uk

Further details can be found on the Cadw website, as well as details of all other places open as part of Open Doors.

We hope as many people as possible will be able to enjoy the tours and be able to see some of the amazing objects preserved by Amgueddfa Cymru for the people of Wales.

A lot of progress has been made since my last blog post. The thatching has been completed and the final stages of landscaping are underway. An earthen bank has been built around the two roundhouses, replicating the formidable defences of the original site at Bryn Eryr Farm in Anglesey. A turf-roofed shelter has been built behind the houses, which is to be used as an outdoor workshop as well as an additional educational facility. Its walls are of clom (a mixture of clay, subsoil and aggregate) just like the roundhouses, but its turf roof represents another roofing material arguably as old as thatching itself. A cobbled surface has been created outside the front of the roundhouses, again, reminiscent of the original site.

Recently, my work has focussed on furnishing the interior of the houses. The larger of the two houses will remain fairly empty (other than a hearth and a wooden bench that circumnavigates its inner perimeter) so that it can be used as a classroom and demonstration area. The smaller house has been dressed to display Iron Age life. Within are some of the furnishings expected of any Iron Age house: a hearth for warmth, a bed for sleeping, a loom for weaving clothing and blankets – along with wooden chests to store them in, and a cauldron for cooking food. Nearly all of the items on display are based on period examples that have managed to survive 2000 years of time. For instance, the cauldron is a replica of a well-preserved copper and iron cooking pot from Llyn Cerrig Bach – only 25km away from the Bryn Eryr site. The iron fire-dogs are simplified replicas of the Capel Garmon fire-dog which was discovered not far away in Denbighshire. The wooden bowls are replicas of those found at the Breiddin hillfort in Montgomeryshire, and the quern stones (for grinding corn into flour) are replicas of ones found within the Bryn Eryr roundhouses themselves. We have a full wood-working tool-kit based on examples from hillforts such as Tre’r Ceiri and Castell Henllys. Even the blankets on the bed have been faithfully copied from surviving scraps of textile.

Now that the house has been faithfully dressed with period furnishings, we can use the space to demonstrate what life was like within a roundhouse. Furthermore, with the aid of craftspeople, re-enactors and volunteers, we can contribute to a deeper understanding of life in the Iron Age, and help turn this house into a home.

We have almost 50 historic buildings here at St Fagans, and most of us staff here have clear favourites. I find I have more than one categories of favourites - the one with my favourite story, the house I’d most like to live in today, and so on. For a spotlight tour I needed to consider all this, pick my favourites, and take visitors on a tour of my chosen buildings.

After thinking, and changing my mind a few times, I made a decision. I chose the Tollhouse with its connections to rich and fascinating political and social history, Nantwallter which has a great story attached, and Llainfadyn which is originally from Rhostryfan, not far from where I grew up in North Wales. I also noticed that they seemed to be linked, and not only by their period of interpretation.

Nantwallter is built from clom, a mix of clay, straw and fine aggregate packed in layers. As the house was being dismantled, a piece of newspaper was found. On the paper was an advert for a ship called the Halton Castle which was to sail on the 25th of April to Patagonia, y ‘wladdychfa Gymreig’, to establish a Welsh settlement in Argentina in 1865. This ship didn’t sail, however the more famous Mimosa sailed instead. It’s an amazing thing to come across. I can’t help wondering if this scrap of paper took them away for a moment to faraway lands, from their lives in West Wales, before they filled the gap in the wall.

Next stop was Llainfadyn, a quarry man’s house from Rhostryfan on the edge of Snowdonia. This was a chance to talk about the quarries and bring North Wales down to St Fagans. There are also plenty of great slate features and furniture inside. I’d recently been walking near where the house is from originally, so I showed some photos of the area, and wondered maybe if that was the view the quarry worker would have seen. The family who lived there later emigrated to America to work in the quarries of Vermont as the industry in Wales began to wane towards the end of the 19th Century. 

The Tollhouse from Aberystwyth represents a turbulent past, and is a chance to tell the story of inequality and tension in the 1840s. Farmers had to pay extortionate tolls several times on a single journey. This was too much on top of tax and rent, and the tithe to a church they didn’t belong to so tension mounted, and Rebecca and her rioters attacked tollhouses such as this. Workhouses were also attacked, and the gap grew between the landed gentry and the farmers. Being inside made you think of the keepers of the tollhouses, and where might they stand. The leaders of these riots were punished severely, some being transported to Australia.

What stirred my imagination, was seeing the familiar stories and histories, settings and daily lives of the people and circumstances attached to them, when looking closer, being catapulted into the big picture, and the other side of the world. The story of the farmers linking in with social injustices of the 19th century, and the political activism and reform tied with it. But also, the contrast between the familiar homes from familiar parts of Wales, that have far reaching connections with countries and continents all over the world. Did they keep a little piece of ‘home’, this familiar ‘home’ now represented at St Fagans, with them – on the shores of their new worlds at the journey’s end?