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Opinion

Why Plaid Cymru called for the return of Welsh artefacts held in England in its election manifesto

24 Jun 2024 5 minute read
Mold Gold Cape / Clogyn Aur yr Wyddgrug. Image: Mark Ramsay

Jane Henderson, Professor of Conservation, Cardiff University

I was not surprised to see Plaid Cymru address culture and heritage as a core manifesto issue in the election.

As the party of Wales with an aspiration for greater devolution, Plaid recognises the role of cultural institutions in building identity and pride, as seen in its manifesto calls for Welsh control of TV station S4C or for Wales to be represented independently at Eurovision.

Plaid’s manifesto identifies that cultural organisations are at a “critical” level of risk that threatens their existence. Funding for the arts in Wales from national bodies has decreased in real terms by 30% since 2017. This is the highest cuts seen in any country in the UK.

Safeguard

Plaid’s manifesto promises to safeguard “[Wales’s] national collections for future generations”. The party plans to pay for this (and its other pledges) through a revised formula for how much money the country receives from Westminster, and increased taxation on those “with the broadest shoulders”.

What is perhaps more unusual is the presence in the manifesto of what could be described as a decolonisation agenda with a decidedly Welsh national perspective. This plays a part in Plaid’s goal to safeguard Wales’s national collections to benefit the nation.

Plaid’s manifesto specifically mentions the Mold gold capethe Moel Hebog shield and the portrait of John Ystumllyn, which are all held in London. The manifesto states that they “should be returned to Wales and used in a way which benefits the nation from which they originate, rather than be held elsewhere”.

A portrait of John Ystumllyn (d. 1786), by an unidentified artist.

The Moel Hebog shield was discovered in 1784 in a bog in northern Wales and is a near perfect example of a bronze age military shield. The Mold gold cape was discovered in 1833 also in northern Wales and is considered one of the finest gold objects from bronze age Europe.

Both were discovered at a time when there were no public museums in Wales, which is why they were taken to London’s British Museum. This is no longer the case and some academics and activists would like to see these artefacts returned permanently (not on loan) to Welsh institutions.

Mandate

The specific ambition to return the portrait of John Ystumllyn (1754) to Wales chimes with the mandate for Welsh heritage institutions to take an active part in the anti-racist Wales action plan.

John Ystumllyn was an 18th-century gardener in north Wales, whose surname is taken from the estate in which he was presumed to be enslaved. He was one of the first black people to live in north Wales whose life was well recorded, and as such his portrait could contribute to a national conversation about history of slavery and the origins of wealth in the great estates.

As well as benefiting Welsh collections, Plaid’s manifesto places the return of such objects alongside the fight for other “artefacts which were removed from their original country and are now hosted elsewhere” – like the demands on the British Museum to return the Benin bronzes or the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Moai. The desire to have items returned permanently also sits very much in line with decolonial (and, for some, more controversial) notions of restitution.

Restitution

Restitution is not just about facilitating loans within the UK, as featured in the Labour party manifesto, but instead insists on the permanent return of lost or stolen objects as an act of “doing justice for past wrongs”.

Many people agree with demands to return the Benin bronzes, which were violently stripped from their place of origin in Nigeria. Such a stance on returning items from London to Wales offers an interesting insight into attitudes about Wales’ relationship to the wider UK as a former colony and Plaid’s vision of Welsh identity.

Cultural identity and pride are central to a sense of “Welshness” and that must speak to Plaid Cymru’s base. The party’s other promises for their vision for arts and culture speak to a desire for more devolution and a strengthened sense of Welsh identity, including the wish for St David’s Day, Wales’ national day, to be a bank holiday in Wales each year.

While the Liberal Democrats and the Green party have recognised the economic value of cultural tourism, Plaid Cymru manifesto talks of the benefits of tourism for linguistic and cultural diversity.

The promotion of the Welsh language features prominently with a promise to have a million Welsh speakers by 2050. This is to be aided by plans to ensure Welsh for all through the education system and support for adult speakers.

This article was first published on The Conversation
The Conversation


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Linda Jones
Linda Jones
21 days ago

Of course these items should be returned to Wales.

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards
21 days ago

Fact check, Professor: the Plaid Manifiesto goes beyond devolution. “Plaid Cymru believes that independence is the best way to deliver real fairness and ambition for Wales. Independence would give us the levers we really need to….etc”.

Frank
Frank
21 days ago

….. and also tell them we want recompense for all the coal and precious metals they swiped from us.

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
20 days ago
Reply to  Frank

…. and left us with dangerously placed hills of waste from the coal industry that can be washed down onto our villages any time.

They must pay us compensation.

Dai Ponty
Dai Ponty
21 days ago

England do not give they take what they did to the countries of Empire is enslaved and stripped them of wealth they did the same to us coal would be worth hundreds of billions of Pounds in todays money Wales saw none of it they will not even pay for the removal of the Coal tips

Riki
Riki
20 days ago
Reply to  Dai Ponty

What’s worse, they have since come up with Laws that make it impossible for those countries that still have major resources to take advantage of them. This is designed so that they can keep their place at the high table at those nations expense. Ours included amongst them! Wales still has major Gold reserves! Let alone Water and Coal.

Frank
Frank
20 days ago
Reply to  Riki

Being an “union” one would believe that all nations had equal status and not one being able to make laws without consultation with the others. It appears that is not the way it is!!

Last edited 20 days ago by Frank
Dai Ponty
Dai Ponty
20 days ago
Reply to  Riki

There is one way to beat that the Only way is have INDEPENDENCE from the Nation of thieves England

Riki
Riki
20 days ago
Reply to  Dai Ponty

I fully agree! With the sentiments of both Dai and Frank. Independence can’t come quick enough.

Riki
Riki
20 days ago

British museum is such an oxymoronic term. Yes, it’s located on the island of Britain. But that doesn’t make it Brythonic. It would be like saying I lived in a stable if I owned a farm. The “British” museum by historical facts must and can only ever be in Wales. As Wales is the only country founded by the Britons.

Gareth
Gareth
20 days ago

I think the reason they hold onto our artefacts is, that they have this skewed idea of history on these isles, and this reinforces they claim to be ” British”. I have seen numerous YouTube videos, where a English person claims to have as much British/ Celtic DNA as us Cymru, ignoring recent TV shows, eg Blood of the Vikings, on BBC, or the Ch4 news article saying” the Welsh are the original Britons, due to DNA evidence “, that disproves their common view. They ignore their own history before 1066, as if to hide the fact they are invaders… Read more »

Riki
Riki
20 days ago
Reply to  Gareth

Indeed, it’s weird because they claim everything to do with Wales and The Britons are forgeries prior to the arrival of the Anglo Saxons, all the while positioning themselves to be seen as British! Why? Why is it so important for them to be seen as British? Maybe there is some truth to those British records that they want to get their hands on? And the only way they can do it is by identifying as British and spending a few hundred years convincing others they British. This of course doesn’t work as long as the true Britons remember that… Read more »

Riki
Riki
20 days ago
Reply to  Gareth

Example – imagine a battle is recorded between Romans and Britons in say, 50CE. Anybody that knows about the terms of British and Briton and their origins would rightly know the battle is in reference to the people now known as Welsh. However, if you convince everyone that the English are British (Britons) and also convince the Welsh they aren’t. This event will no longer be seen in reference to the Cymru (Welsh), but rather lead to the assumption it is in reference to the English. So effectively our history has know become English history.

Mr Williams
Mr Williams
20 days ago

There were, I am led to believe, some books from Welsh monasteries, that were removed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. It would be good to have these returned to our National Library.

Huw Evans
Huw Evans
19 days ago

I agree with Professor Henderson but by extension the argument also applies in the opposite direction – to artefacts held in Wales which have been derived from outside Wales:e.g., artefacts in the Clive Museum at Powis Castle: The Clive Museum at Powis Castle | Wales | National Trust

Valley girl
Valley girl
19 days ago

Artefacts found in Wales should remain in Wales. Why should we be having this discussion? #Independence.

Meg
Meg
18 days ago

Add to that the bones of the “Red Lady” (boy) of Paviland, currently languishing in Oxford

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