Penblwydd hapus to Alfred Russel Wallace!
Today, 8 January, marks the 190th birthday of the intrepid explorer and brilliant naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. Born in 1823 in the village of Llanbadoc near Usk, Wallace went on to be one of the most celebrated scientists of his era.
Wallace spent much of his early working years as a civil engineer in the south Wales area, particularly in the Vale of Neath. This involved spending a great deal of time working outdoors, which allowed him to indulge in his growing passion for natural history.
Soon, inspired by the writings of traveling naturalists such as Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin, Wallace set out on his own intrepid travels. These adventures started in the Amazon Basin and were followed later by his explorations of the Malay Archipelgo.
During these trips Wallace collected many thousands of birds, butterflies and beetles, many of which were new to science. The biological diversity he encountered inspired his thinking in many areas of biology such as the distribution and evolution of species. His brilliance did not go un-noticed and in 1858 he famously co-published the theory of evolution by natural selection with Charles Darwin.
During 2013 Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, along with other museums and institutions across the world, will be marking the centenary of the death of A R Wallace in a celebration of his life and legacy. Keep an eye on our web site and blog for further information as we finalise details and dates. You will also be able to follow other events and exhibitions on the Wallace100 website.
Natural History Halloween Open Day - more scary pictures!
Following on from the last post about our Natural History Halloween Open Day, we thought you might like to see some more pictures of the event.
We had some freshly collected fungi on display, including an invitation to sample the smell of a fresh stinkhorn and to speculate on the significance of the smell to the biology of the fungus. We found it got some interesting reactions (although it’s not so fun being sat downwind from it!).
There were also some less stinky but realistic wax models of fungi. These were made in the mid 1900s by our in-house botanical model-maker, a practice that continues today.
A ‘murder mystery’ had also taken place in our herbarium (the plant collections), an area not usually open to the public. Whilst surrounded by our quarter of a million pressed herbarium specimens, you had to work out which plant was used to poison the victim!
If this has whetted your appetite, keep an eye on our Natural History collections Twitter feed @NatHistConservation for more behind the scenes sneak peeks. Also stay tuned to the What’s On guide on our main website for details of the next Open Day. More stories from behind the scenes can also be found on the 'Rhagor' pages of our website e.g. conserving wax models.
Old Bones for a New Exhibition
More than 20 years ago the Museum was donated a large research collection of animal bones. This had been put together by a veterinary scientist, Dr Barbara Noddle. The collection mainly consists of sheep, goat and cattle bones from many different breeds.
When it was donated the collection was in a poor state and required extensive conservation and curation. Today it is now housed in over 600 boxes at our offsite Collection Centre at Nantgarw, and a database is available on the website.
Over the years the Noddle Collection has mainly been used in zoo-archaeological research – this is the study of animal remains found at archaeological sites. However parts of the collection will soon find their way into the exhibition limelight!
From the 13th October ‘The Wolf Inside’ exhibition opens. This will be looking at animal domestication, focusing on dogs but also exploring other animals such as sheep and chickens. And this is where Barbara’s collection of old bones finds a new use. We are using a range of skulls from the collection to show some of the diversity found in the different breeds of sheep. A range of these skulls have been checked over and polished up ready for public display.
Along with the skulls there will also be a whole range of animal specimens on display from the museums collections, many of which we haven’t had the opportunity to bring out for many years.
The exhibition runs until February next year.
New Natural History Galleries
At long last all the natural history galleries are now open again at National Museum Cardiff. You can see old favourites such as the Humpback Whale and the world's largest recorded Leatherback Turtle but there is also something new.
We have created a new gallery which is an introduction to marine biodiversity - or life in the sea. The gallery has over 100 new marine specimens on display with a focus on marine invertebrates rather than fish and you will also find specimens of seaweeds, an often neglected group when it comes to museum displays.
Nearly all the specimens have been displayed in indvidual cases which allows you to get up close and marvel at the intricate design of some of these beasts (and algae!). We have reserved the 3 large cases to display heavy or fragile specimens. Two have displays of some of our fantastic Blaschka glass models. The detail in these models has to be seen to be believed and all the more amazing is they were made over 100 years ago.
So if you are in Cardiff and have an hour free why not pop in and have a look at the new galleries.
Lower Natural History Galleries re-opening soon
The west wing natural history galleries have now been closed for well over a year. This has been due to the building works replacing the west wing roof and installing the new contemporary art galleries on the top floor. These works are completed and we are now working hard to get the ground floor natural history galleries back into shape.
The front gallery remains mainly the same but we have taken the opportunity to give the dioramas a deep clean, replace the carpet and redo the lighting. As a result the space is looking much brighter and fresher.
The remaining ground floor gallery space has seen some big changes. We are currently installing a new display area called ‘Insight’. This is a series of modular displays, many with interactive touch screens, which will explore the science that goes on behind the scenes at the museum.
Beyond this is another new display area that looks at evolution, and provides a linking space to the newly refurbished science education room.
These spaces will all be fully open to the public on April 16th when we look forward to welcoming you back into these gallery spaces.
Unfortunately the mezzanine area gallery spaces, where the Leatherback Turtle and Humpback Whale can be found, will remain closed a few months longer. Once the ground floor is open we will be cleaning and redoing some of the displays in this area in preparation for the BBC Wildlife Photographer exhibition which opens in mid June.
The Buddhas are as many as the sands of the Ganges River: Carved inscription at Baodingshan, Dazu, AD 1177-1249
May 2010. I’m standing next to the largest head I’ve ever seen. Carved in sandstone and painted, it belongs to the vast reclining Buddha at the heart of the Baodingshan cave temple. Baodingshan, ‘Summit of Treasures’, is the most impressive of the seventy-five rock-carved temple sites that make up the Dazu World Heritage Site in south-west China. 10,000 individual figures populate its 500m-long tree-shaded sandstone cliff, all carved between AD1177 and 1249.
The experience is overwhelming. I’m astonished by the sheer ambition of this Buddhist complex, by the sophisticated imagination that planned it, by the skills of the artists that fashioned it. I’m here with colleague Steve Howe to plan an exhibition of Dazu carvings at the National Museum in Cardiff early in 2011, and I’m wondering how we are going to convey the magic of these places to our visitors.
This visit to Dazu was my first time back in China since working there in the mid 1980s. China had changed hugely, of course, and the pace of change is as breathtaking as the ferociously spiced Sichuanese food (the best in China, in my view) which our generous hosts pressed on us at every opportunity. The most important things, however – the sociability of the people, their rightful pride in a distinguished cultural heritage – remain undimmed.
Our week’s work with colleagues at the Dazu Rock Carvings Museum developed a warm and trusting friendship, along with the realisation that we had an opportunity to create something really special back in Cardiff. Dazu, after all, represents the last great flourishing of the cave-temple art form and its treasures of Song-dynasty (AD960-1279) sculpture had never been seen outside China before.
Back in Wales, the whole exhibition team rose enthusiastically to the challenge and, under serious time pressure, captured the serene drama of visiting a rock-carved cave temple. The exquisite beauty of the carvings, something both spiritual and deeply human, shines out. From a number of favourite pieces, I would highlight the meditating figure of Zhao Zhifeng, the designer of the Baodingshan complex, and, in complete contrast, the charmingly characterised family group from a tomb complete with serious father, delighted mother and two naughty children. Pride of place, though, goes to the central Sakyamuni Buddha, whose authoritative dignity greets visitors to the exhibition and provides a profoundly spiritual focus for the whole experience.
I was particularly pleased to see the delight of our Chinese colleagues at the results, but equally so to see the enthusiasm of so many visitors of all kinds, whether people from Cardiff or China, specialists or local school children. If the multitude of Buddhist figures and schools of thought, and their interweaving with Confucian and Daoist ideas, all seem like too much to grasp, not to worry. Just enjoy the spectacle and take heart from another Dazu inscription that expresses the essential simplicity of Buddhist thinking: ‘to know clearly means that there is nothing to know’.
Andrew Renton, Head of Applied Art, National Museum Cardiff
Dazu and confused: an exhausting but exhilarating journey to China
Having secured the Dazu Exhibition to come to Wales - to venture west for the first time ever - the Museum sent me to China as a facilitator, a friendly face, to meet and greet its people and report back on the full logistics required for transporting these holy artefacts all the way to Cardiff.
This is a diary of memories from the trip:
The further you travel, the less you know. That line, from Tao teaching, is calling to lay rest my preconceptions.
I reach Dazu late in the evening and after nearly a full day of travelling, cocooned in one small seat after another, happy to have finally finished the journey. My hosts are excited by my presence and have kindly prepared a welcoming dinner. The food arrives as colourful exotic platters, artful dishes with precise garnishes.
Plate after plate upon a lazy Susan, a magic roundabout of smells and flavours so unfamiliar I feel the need for reckless abandonment. I am coached through each course in descriptive detail. Silk worms, pigs gums and the tail of something! Respectfully I enjoy being the entertainment, the toast of this banquet of curiosities.
The next day and I’m standing at the foot of the mountain, my leather soles on ancient well trodden steps. The summit is hidden by dense foliage and cloaked in a playful mist.
Beishan represents the pinnacle of Chinese rock carvings, familiar images from text books are now images of breathtaking artistic, spiritual realization. These exquisite statues project their majesty from 10 meter high walls in commanding elegance, as another niche reveals graceful scenes in rust coloured sandstone magnificence. Truly a day to remember!
Next morning and it’s time to meet the local media. The smell of a thimble size glass of white spirit liquor goes someway in preparing me for the consumption. I know I have to knock it back. Today I’m the toast of the town, and everyone wants a piece of me.
I start with filming for Chongqing T.V and also make the front page of Dazu's local newspaper. I'm feeling the love. It's difficult to recall the interviews, an almost surreal experience of transcendental fragmented English prose, offered in a wide-eyed excitable manner. I must have said the right things - forged a relationship - as an orderly queue waits to raise another glass of white heat to my lips!
Alas, it’s my last night in China. I’m gazing upon the towering skyline of Chongqing with its ever suppressive fog cast neon rainbows across the Yangzi river. Leaving the busy streets behind, the smell of frying tofu and soot, I watch the city unfold from a packed pleasure cruiser.
The huge creative and commercial upheavals that China is undergoing tell of a transition from hard line politics to economic pragmatism. China and the world have much to gain from Chinese openness. I will leave with a fondness for the country and its people.
Lee Jones, Senior Technician, National Museum Cardiff
Respect the world as your self
The world can be your lodging
Love the world as your self
The world can be your trust.
Dazu: Designing the exhibition
During my time as a designer at National Museum Wales I have had to deal with displays of all shapes and sizes and the Dazu Rock Carvings exhibition provided a unique challenge, especially the heads!
The exhibition features many heavy stone heads, separated from the bodies by historical vandalism as well as some wear and tear (well, they are over 1000 years old!).
The problem posed was how to display them securely and yet in a good position for the viewing public. We also needed a flexible system that is quick: there was only ten days from the delivery to the practical installation!
Some weeks ago we had an idea in the design studio and called on the expertise of Annette and Mary from the Conservation department to discuss the merits of our thoughts.
“What if we set the stones in an expanding foam mould? Would it grip the sculpture securely and hold a display position?”
Mary and Annette both confirmed that if we employed a high-grade conservation material and sheathed the stone with polythene film, the stone would not be affected -in Layman’s terms, it would work!
As the icing on the cake we came up with the idea of adding a fabric layer that would act as the finish, ready for display. A mock up was quickly made and, wow! It worked brilliantly!
Mary and Annette made great progress and the heads were set into pre-made display boxes in a secure lab deep in the bowls of the Museum.
The fabric finish was trimmed and the boxes complete with the sculptures were transferred to the gallery for display with specialised lighting.
The heads joined larger items on specialised plinths and some very delicate carvings within cases. Further ingenious display methods were devised for each and every sculpture to ensure this truly amazing exhibition is as inspiring as possible.
We are all very excited to see this exhibition come together and are sure the public will love it too.
Simon Tozzo, Three Dimensional Designer, National Museum Wales
Sacred Dazu rock carvings leave China for the first time
January 26th marks a special day at National Museum Cardiff as it is the opening day of a very unique and exclusive exhibition.
From Steep Hillsides: Ancient Rock Carvings from Dazu, China is a collection of rare Chinese religious sculptures from the World Heritage site in Dazu.
The very earliest sculpture at the sites date from the mid 7th century and these beautiful carvings depict and were influenced by Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist beliefs.
The exhibition will contain sculpture mostly from the 10th to the 13th century. Eclectically bringing these religions together, they create a highly original manifestation of spiritual harmony and give life to the exceptional Chinese history of this particular period.
Off limits to visitors for many years, the carvings were only opened to Chinese travellers in 1961 and foreign visitors in 1980. The result is that they remain in excellent condition despite their creation centuries ago.
While many of the larger carvings still remain embedded in the cliffs and mountain sides of Dazu, this is the first time the more manageable sculptures have left Chinese shores and travelled West.
National Museum Cardiff will be the only museum outside of China to host this extraordinary exhibition, providing a fascinating insight into ancient rock art and Chinese culture to all those who come and visit.
Face to Face with the Past ... Part Two
One of the most popular displays at the National Roman Legion Museum is a stone coffin that contains the skeleton of a Roman man. The coffin also contains the remains of grave goods that he would need for their next life, including the base of a shale bowl and fragments of a glass perfume or ointment bottle.
Now we turn our attention to the coffin lid.
Like the base it was broken by the digger. Here it is with all the fragments lined up ready to be joined. Some areas are missing, but the gaps will allow people to see inside the coffin when it is put back on display.
The top of the lid looks so uneven and eroded because acid rain soaked into the soil has dissolved the limestone. This process eventually leads to the formation of limestone caves in nature. Solution holes, the start of mini 'caves', can be seen in the lid.
Adhesive alone may not be strong enough to keep the heavy fragments of stone together.
To help strengthen the bond, metal rods will be inserted across the join. Holes have to be drilled into the broken edges of the stone. This is a tense moment as any mistakes could cause further damage.
The stone could split or flake; we just don't know how it will react to the drilling!
Thankfully all goes well and the drill makes light work of the task.
That pile of stone dust will also come in useful; we can mix it with the glue to help secure the rods.
Another hole now has to be drilled in the edge of the adjoining fragment; this must match up perfectly to allow the rod to fit across the break.
First stage is to dab paint thickly around the freshly drilled hole.
The fragment is then placed in position and pressure applied.
This has to be done quickly before the paint blobs dry, but also with care as we don't want paint smeared everywhere
The paint has left a good imprint on the other fragment, so we know where to drill the second hole to fit the rod.
The metal rods now have to be cut to the right length, about 7cm.
This was harder than we thought as the stainless steel is very tough. We had to stop several times as the blade kept heating up.
Only 6 more to go!
With the metal rods in place within the join and epoxy glue applied, the two pieces are brought together.
Care is taken to align the edges before the two sections are held in place and the adhesive allowed to set.
All stuck together now.
Hopefully the metal dowels will give the extra strength required, especially as we have to move the lid from the workshop in the basement to the gallery upstairs, where at last it can be reunited with its base.
Unfortunately we have no lift....any ideas!
The only option is good old fashioned man power just like the Romans!
Here some of the team (our modern day Roman slaves) take a well deserved break after bringing one of the coffin lid fragments up the stairs.
Before the lid is put in place the skeleton has to be laid out again. Being careful to get it right!
Unfortunately one item will be missing for a while and that's the skull. This is needed for analysis as we try and find out more about the man buried in the coffin 1800 years ago.
Once everything is in place a new Perspex cover can be installed to support the stone fragments of the lid.
The Perspex is only 1cm thick so hopefully it will be robust enough to take the weight of the solid Bath stone blocks.
Now the tricky task of installing the lid begins.
Thankfully all goes well and the Perspex proves strong enough to take the weight.
At last, 15 years since its discovery, the lid is once more back where it belongs, on top of the coffin.
Although the lid partially obscures the contents of the coffin, new lights will be installed to help illuminate the interior.
The first phase of the redisplay is now complete, so in the second phase we turn our attention to the Skull.
Follow the blog as we attempt to learn more about the man buried in the coffin.
Where did he grow up and what did he look like?