Making History Together
Beth Thomas, Keeper of History & Archaeology
If you Google ‘National History Museum’ the first thing that comes up is London’s Natural History Museum, and then St Fagans. Though it is gratifying that St Fagans comes so near the top of the list, it does make you wonder why there are so few other national history museums listed. Of course, many national history museums don't call themselves such - some are simply the national museum, or the histories of the nation are split among a number of museums.
There is no doubt that being called a national history museum is loaded with expectations. Is it a one-stop shop for an authoritative narrative of the nation? The EUNAMUS project research reports are really worth reading (http://www.eunamus.eu/index.html). This EC-funded multidisciplinary project explored the formation and power of national museums in Europe.
A particular quote from the project summary really rang a bell with me in terms of the pressure of traditional expectations of a national museum:
'The museum is seen as possessing treasures and contributing to knowledge while simultaneously making concrete the cultural attributes of the nation. This is the performance undertaken by most national museums: visitors are expected to bow to the authority of the institution as it possesses the real evi- dence of the past.'
St Fagans is a former national open-air folk museum feeling its way towards becoming a national history museum. We are bringing the national collections of archaeology and social history together in an open-air site to create a very unique learning experience. Our origins as a museum lead us to a bottom-up approach to national history - or rather histories. We don't want visitors to bow to the authority of the institution - we want them to recognise our expertise, yes, but also to feel that they have a contribution to make. The significance of our collections to Wales is as much about their feelings in the present as about our knowledge of the past.
Some of you will already have read Nina Simon's The Participatory Museum. If not, then read it now - it's free and online. This publication has been a great source of inspiration to us on the project team. We aim to create a participatory museum of history on a national scale - no pressure there!
So what exactly does that mean? Well our aim is to work with the people of Wales to create a museum that actually makes a difference to people's lives - a place where everyone can share knowledge, collections and skills and make history together. We want the people of Wales to contribute so that they are part of the story and not just visitors to it. We intend to ask our users to define what is recognised and preserved as Welsh history.
Most importantly we want it to be a museum that continually evolves with the people that participate with it. This blog is part of that process. You can find more detailed information about the aims and objectives of the project here. But from now on, the project team will add to this blog, and give you glimpses into the trials and tribulations of trying to deliver our vision of what a national history museum should be. Join us on the journey, and let us know what you think!