Review: St Fagans National History Museum’s new development
The National History Museum (popularly known as St Fagans) is as close to the social and folk soul of Wales as it is possible to get.
Since its opening in 1948, millions of people have visited its serene grounds, Elizabethan manor house and many iconic buildings from around Wales, dismantled and rebuilt at this open-air museum where you can “see Wales in a day”.
Its founder, Dr Iorwerth Peate, is an iconic figure in Welsh culture. Indeed, his grave actually lies within St. Fagans’ boundary. A pleasing symmetry as the collector becoming part of the museum.
Iconic founder. Iconic collections. The soul of a nation. Could the current generation of staff rise to the challenge of taking the National History Museum into the next 50 years?
The answer is a resounding yes.
After receiving a £15 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant (the biggest single grant ever given in Wales) St. Fagans has gone ahead with a £30 million redevelopment of the museum.
The first phase of that (new gallery space, education workshops, cafes, facilities and a craft centre opened in October 2017 (see a previous blog).
This final phase (including contents of three new galleries and a reconstruction of a royal residency) was launched on October 18th 2018 to much fanfare and excitement from the cultural sector as well as the public.
The first two galleries are on the first floor of the main building. I went along and explored what the new development had to offer.
‘Wales is…’ is where St. Fagans explores bite-sized chunks of Welsh history. The floor layout is that of a mobile phone’s home screen.
The floorplan, book-ended by flexible wall projection and/or performance space, is a grid of blocks, each one accommodating a different exhibition case exploring aspects of what Wales “is”.
For example “Wales is scarred by war” (voices of soldiers and the story of conflict), “Wales is coal” (perhaps a predictable theme, but the brevity with which it is dealt is refreshingly welcome as it could have descended into stereotyping of a nation, important as the coal industry was), and “Wales is drowned out” (the story of the drowning of a valley to supply water to Liverpool, a chapter in Welsh history that gave birth to a resurgent Welsh language and Nationalist movement which shaped modern Wales).
Extensive community consultation identified what each of these “chunks” should be with the simplicity of the design and fabric of the cases and labels making this gallery one which will be renewed on a regular basis, reacting to public desire.
Some exhibits have wall space (and stickers) for visitors to express their opinions. The most surprising of these is around a large photo of Margaret Thatcher sitting, smiling, amongst coal miners.
Her presence in this gallery has certainly stimulated debate. All ephemeral, paper-based, public responses to this (and other) exhibits are being curated by museum staff. Public opinion is being valued.
‘Life is…’ is the gallery which displays the life of ordinary people. Their work, their loves, their leisure. Stand out objects for me include an Edwardian tile and brass chip shop fryer and, playfully, a 1950s caravan (and full contents) donated by the Dodds family who also gave family cine film footage which is projected onto the outside wall of the caravan.
Again, the gallery content has been directed by extensive partnership working with community groups who have told the museum what they wanted to see. Some museums in the UK are adopting this approach on a small scale.
St. Fagans has completely altered the way it collects and curates in a root and branch change of museological attitude. This gallery (and its sister next door) is a testament to hundreds of hours of collaboration, communication, and inspiration.
I cannot praise the museum enough for building on their Paul Hamlyn Foundation project “Our Museum” in which they were a partner from 2012 to 2015. This special initiative helped curatorial and learning staff to “let go” of their stewardship and let the public influence their policies and values. This gallery is a joy.
Leaving the main building the next gem to discover, as one walks past an artist-designed children’s playground and a slightly incongruous treetop rope walk, is Y Gweithdy (The Workshop).
This starkly angular new building nestles cleverly in an awkward space between two listed woodland trackways. It houses a café, well-resourced craft skills workshop and a gallery. The latter is, perhaps, my favourite part of the revolution that has taken place in St. Fagans.
It tells the stories of crafts and craftspeople through a material themed approach to display. Objects, and the tools used to create them, are exhibited exquisitely, as much art objects as artisan. Here, a cabinet maker’s tools, there a Bronze Age carved wooden post. Table space and interactives make this an ideal creative space for children and adults alike.
The workshop area is already hosting a series of public craft events. Mae’r Gweithdy yn disgleirio! (The Workshop shines!)
Close to Y Gweithdy is Llys Llywelyn (Llywelyn’s Court) a partial reconstruction of an archaeologically-excavated royal site on Anglesey. The two buildings recreated here act not only as a talisman to discover Wales’ indigenous royal past but also as a residential centre and modern kitchen which school groups can use.
Finally, also nearby, is Bryn Eryr a reconstruction of an Iron Age dwelling. Community volunteers were heavily involved with the construction of both sites.
David Anderson, Director General of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales says, of the whole development, “We see this not as a project but as a way of working for the whole organisation, based on social justice and participation, which we will sustain and develop in the years ahead. It is the beginning of a new era at St Fagans and all of Wales’ national museums.”
This way of working can be summed up as “letting go”. Letting go of preconceived ideas of what a museum is or should be. Letting go of deeply held curatorial principles and, possibly, some prejudices. In that letting go St. Fagans has grasped a new future.
Back in the ‘Wales is…’ gallery, a modern video of young people discussing devolution sits beneath a “Yes” campaign banner from 1997. One of the young people, with wisdom belying his age, says “Democracy is expressing yourself in a crowd”.
Through democratically engaging with community groups in the design, content, and message of this ambitious project St Fagans is not only expressing itself, but it is also standing out.