David Anderson's Blog
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.
End of an era
Last week mainly consisted of a number of internal meetings, such as audit committee, staff executive and so on. All are important of course, but it does mean that during such weeks I do not get the chance to visit sites outside of Cardiff.
The evenings were also busy, and on Tuesday night I went to a dinner hosted by the First Minister to mark the special relationship between Japan and Wales. It was the first type of event since the election, and it was clear that the international profile of Wales will be important to Carwyn Jones over the next few years. His speech was excellent, and I was amazed to learn that there are over 130 companies from Japan operating here in Wales. Though it was a lovely evening, it did strike me that there were very few women present and that most present were men of a certain age in suits, like myself. This was reinforced in a performance by a Male Voice Choir. They were excellent singers, but it did make me wonder if in the future we could showcase a more creative Wales at such events? Something to ponder anyway...
Wednesday evening was also a late evening, this time at the Museum to mark the retirement of our President, Paul Loveluck. I have only been in post in Cardiff for 8 months, so I have not had the privilege of working for years with Paul as some of those present hae done. But in that short time, it is already clear to me that he has been an exceptional President. His combination of vast managerial and Chief Executive experience in different organizations in Wales, and personal values, is exceptional. I have found that Paul is hugely liked and respected by everyone, inside and outside Amgueddfa Cymru. And they in turn feel that he respects them.
His diplomatic skills, and his ability to understand and represent many different groups in Wales, have ensured that significant and potentially serious challenges and difficulties have not developed into crises.
Paul has overseen the most important changes and developments in Amgueddfa Cymru, certainly since the opening of St Fagans in 1948, and possibly since its foundation. His legacy is one of impressive physical transformation of our sites for public good, but it is also of something even more important - an organization that over the last 9 years has been shaped by his values.
The best tribute we can pay to Paul is that Amgueddfa Cymru holds these values close, and carries them forward in its heart. Though we of course look forward to a new chapter with a new President, we will miss Paul and the contribution he's made to our work.
Fun, but an important insight
Over the past few weeks, I have been undertaking work experience at our sites. There are two to go - Llanberis and National Museum Cardiff - but I thought it would be interesting to report back on what I've been tasked to do up to now. One of the things that struck me the most was the high level of skills required at all of our sites to ensure that everything runs smoothly. It is not just a matter of opening and closing the gates at the start and end of every day, and each member of staff has an important role to play in ensuring that we deliver the best for our visitors.
I was given a wide range of tasks that were in accordance with my limited skills level in some areas! Highlights included taking part in the safety inspection at Big Pit, selling a site booklet at Caerleon, cleaning the ladies toilets at Swansea, supervising the operation of the carding machinery at Drefach and removing corrosion on the earliest surviving mining truck in Wales at our Collections Centre in Nantgarw. St Fagans worked me the hardest, from removing hundreds of dead heads from tulips, to creating threads by hand for the reconstruction of the Clogmaker's cottage to making nails from scratch at the Blacksmiths workshop. I nearly succeeded in making the perfect nail, but I made the mistake of overheating the metal meaning that the nail became too brittle and alas, unusable.
I'm looking forward to completing my work experience at the remaining sites! It has been a fun experience, but also an important one as it has given me a different insight into the workings of each of the sites. It has been a great way for me to get to know staff in a more informal environment. Although formal presentations are necessary from time to time, I do prefer having the opportunity to talk one to one.
Here, there and everywhere
At the end of last week, I went to Dublin. It was in the middle of their elections, and the results weren't known by then but there was an obvious appetite for change. Among the people I met with were Raymond Keaveney from the National Gallery of Ireland, and Pat Wallace from National Museum Ireland. It was clear from what I was told that the museum sector has been badly hit by the current financial climate with cuts in staff as well as a freeze on recruitment. However, it was not all doom and gloom and we had many interesting discussions about possible future collaboration and staff exchanges. There was also much banter about the rugby, with the Wales v Ireland match looming. Luckily, my colleagues have given me a special dispensation to continue to support Ireland!
Back in Wales, I went to the opera at the Wales Millennium Centre for the first time. I was impressed by the high quality of the setting as well as the performance. We are lucky to have such a fantastic venue here in Cardiff.
I also have a bit of good news to share, as I was elected to the Board of the Museums Association. I am absolutely delighted, and also grateful of the support. I would have liked to have seen more candidates from outside of London stand and hope a greater balance can be achieved in the future. The MA have a big job of work to do now, and there are challenges ahead to fill the gap left by the MLA.
Happy Chinese New Year!
An article by me, published on the website Waleshome today:
TODAY is the Chinese New Year, and we enter the year of the Rabbit.
Although we have been celebrating the Chinese New Year for a number of years at Amgueddfa Cymru –National Museum Wales, this year is extra special for us as it coincides with the unique exhibition that we are currently hosting at National Museum Cardiff – From Steep Hillsides: Ancient Rock Carvings from Dazu, China. This exhibition has been a coup, not only for Amgueddfa Cymru but also for Wales as these sculptures have never before been seen outside of China. We feel very privileged to have been chosen as the first ever venue to host them outside of their homeland and I’m confident that this free exhibition will be popular with our visitors.
If you have not yet had the opportunity to visit the exhibition, then it is difficult to convey in words just how magical they are. The carvings originate from the steep hillsides of the Dazu World Heritage site near Chongqing, which contain an exceptional series of rock carvings dating from the middle of the 7th century and developed between the 9th and the 13th centuries. The carvings comprise some 50,000 figures in total, and are remarkable for their aesthetic quality, their rich diversity of subject matter, both secular and religious, and the light that they shed on everyday life in China during this period. By a happy coincidence, a few years ago I was lucky enough to visit Dazu and see them for myself. It was an unique experience, and I remember being blown away by them. Obviously, we couldn’t bring all 50,000 figures to Wales, but this exhibition contains superb examples that have become detached from their original setting, along with accurate replicas of some of the most important sculptures still in situ and dramatic large-scale images, to give some idea of what it is like to visit these spectacular places.
Dazu is a real treasure house of Chinese art history and an important expression of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism, as well as a fascinating insight into Chinese daily life. I cannot overemphasise how remarkable these carvings are, and certainly, this exhibition would not be out of place at any world-class museum. A question that I have been asked since the exhibition opened has been why was Wales selected as a venue for this stunning exhibition rather than somewhere like the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert? The answer lies in the blossoming relationship between Wales and the Chongqing region in China, which has been led by the Welsh Assembly Government.
The origin of the relationship was a recommendation from Premier Wan Jiabao during his visit to Wales in 2000, which resulted in a Memorandum of Understanding between the Chongqing Municipal Government and the Welsh Assembly Government, agreeing to collaboration and co-operation in a number of areas, which was signed during First Minister for Wales Rhodri Morgan’s visit to Chongqing in March 2006. Since then Wales has welcomed a number of visitors from Chongqing and delegations from Wales have visited Chongqing. The Welsh Assembly Government also funds a schools project, managed by British Council, which links more than 50 Welsh schools with schools in Chongqing. There have been several exchange visits by the schools to Chongqing and to Wales.
This relationship has also extended into culture, and National Museum Wales has established a relationship with several cultural organisations in Chongqing. It is hoped that this exhibition is the first of many such exchanges, which will in future include sending some of our own collections to China. Not only will we be able to continue to showcase Chinese culture in Wales but we will also be able to showcase Wales to the world. Both countries are steeped in history and culture, and it is a fantastic opportunity for us to share our national stories.
Establishing strong links between Wales and China is obviously of great importance to the Welsh Assembly Government, and it was widely commented upon that Wales had been excluded from the itinerary of a recent Chinese trade delegation that visited the UK. But those critics should not despair. I believe that the Welsh Assembly Government is laying the foundations for a successful long term friendship between the two countries, not just a relationship based on business and economics. This exhibition is a small but not insignificant part of that burgeoning friendship which will hopefully evolve over time.