The Future Display of Fine and Applied Art

In the NMGW operational plan for 2000/2001, we committed ourselves to the following piece of work:

'Carry out a consultation exercise on the future display of fine and applied art with the aim of achieving greater visibility for works of (1) Welsh origin and inspiration, and (2) from the post-1945 period.'

1.0 Background

The National Museums & Galleries of Wales (NMGW) was founded by Royal Charter in 1907, and is an Assembly-sponsored public body. Its objects are:

'The advancement of the education of the public', 'primarily by the complete illustration of the geology, mineralogy, zoology, botany, ethnography, archaeology, art, history and special industries of Wales and generally (a) by the collection, conservation, elucidation and presentation of objects and things.. in connection therewith and (b) the collection, conservation, elucidation of objects and things (including pictures, engravings, statuary and all works of fine art of any kind) whether connected or not with Wales which is calculated to further the advancement of education…' (Royal Charter - 1907, amended 1911 and 1991)

NMGW now operates on eight sites across Wales:

  • National Museum & Gallery (NMG) (Cathays Park)

  • Museum of Welsh Life (St. Fagans)

  • The Welsh Slate Museum (Llanberis)

  • Museum of the Welsh Woollen Industry (Drefach-Felindre)

  • Roman Legionary Museum (Caerleon)

  • Segontium Roman Museum (Caernarfon)

  • Turner House Gallery (Penarth)

  • Big Pit Mining Museum (Blaenavon)

The oldest of these, and still the headquarters of NMGW, is the multi-disciplinary National Museum & Gallery (referred to here as NMG). This imposing classical building in Cardiff's Civic Centre opened in 1922, and was last refurbished and extended in 1988-1993.

The National Museum & Gallery's building is where the departments of archaeology and numismatics, biodiversity and systematic biology, and geology and most of NMGW's central and support services, are all based, as well as the fine and applied art which is the basis of this note/paper.

2.0 Planning context

The new Directorate at NMGW has sought to ensure that this consultation process was fully developed, and forms a significant element of our planning context.

The last major rehang of the art collection was planned in the late 1980's and completed when the new galleries were finished in 1993.

A review therefore seems timely.

We are also aware of wider debates about what defines Welsh art and about the future of the visual arts in Wales, and we would like to ensure that these debates educate our approach to NMGW's planning.

Any consideration of NMGW's role and of plans for fine and applied art is complicated not only by the relationships within NMG and NMGW, such as between the Art Department and other collecting departments, but also by the planning frameworks created by others, such as the Arts Council of Wales or the Council for Museums in Wales, as well as the National Assembly. This exercise, for example, takes place in the context of a Quinquennial Review of the NMGW by the National Assembly. It also connects with internal exercises including architect's review of space at NMG

3.0 The consultation process

The consultation process, summarised our operating quotation from the operational plan, has in its first stage comprised:

  • discussions with a wide range of people who have particular roles in the arts, or parallel experiences in other institutions. Six consultation sessions were independently facilitated and documented to form a body of thinking for later stages of the process.

  • an 'open meeting', also independently facilitated and reported upon

  • workshops within NMG will begin to consider how the planning of the various aspects of the building might be taken forward together.

The first stage is meant as an opportunity for contribution of thoughts and perceptions on the issues which face us - rather than for us to take statements about our current work or our future.

The timetable and outputs, including the second stage, are attached in the appendices

3.1 Issues and questions

These issues were given in briefing papers as ways into the discussion:

  • How do we 'achieve greater visibility' for works of 1) Welsh origin and inspiration, and 2) from the post 1945 period?

  • How is the work of, and the issues and constraints facing, NMGW's Art Department understood by a range of stakeholders, both in Wales and beyond?

  • Should the display of art be considered in association with, or separately from, the display of archaeology, geology and biodiversity?

  • In what ways does the display of art at NMG already constitute a 'National Gallery of Art'?

  • How will we deal with the resource implications of different options?

  • Do we share issues with other institutions, for example in Ireland and Scotland, as well as across the world, or are the issues we face unique to us or to Wales?

  • What issues do we share with other institutions in Wales?

  • How might we articulate our various functions in the future, e.g. collection care; temporary exhibitions; display and interpretation; outreach and education; collaboration within Wales; collaboration beyond Wales?

  • What are the implications for Art of the constraints imposed by the Cathays Park building and of its potential for future development? Should these be tested against the advantages and disadvantages of alternatives?

These issues were indeed discussed in the consultation first stage, but became reconfigured and refined in the process.

The facilitator of the process, David Clarke, therefore has provided a full report structured around what he saw as the themes to emerge from the meetings.

3.2 Summary of key elements and discussion themes

The full report by David Clarke, the independent faciltator, is in a separate section. This is a summary of the structure and themes of his report:

  1. Why debate the display of art?

    The visual cultures of Wales are of particular importance in the current social and political environment. NM&GW must lead the development of sophisticated strategies for the presentation and support of both historic and contemporary practice.

    NMGW enjoys wide support in the cultural field for this work, but must continue to earn this support through real change and development of its work in the collection and display of art.

    Debates about a national gallery, or other similar ideas, are best developed by NMGW, which is the appropriate body to do so in light of its expertise, perspective and collections.

  2. Curatorial approaches - the canon and the story

    It remained appropriate to show both Welsh work and work from beyond Wales. Ways forward lie not in sacrificing one for another but in making both more legible and explaining the points of contact between the two.

  3. The work and role of NMG - collection and display

    Although the collection is clearly a resource from which displays will be drawn, display is not the sole purpose of collection. The development of clear display and interpretation strategies is a priority regardless of whether it leads to more or less of the collection being on display - coherence of experience rather than quantity is the key.

    The existence and accessibility of the collection as a research resource should be emphasised, through our Collections Centre at Nantgarw and by internet-based digital resources.

    A new strategy for display, exhibition and interpretation will need to address staff roles.

  4. Working in Wales

    In addressing the issues in respect of NMG, there is a strong sense that the Museum must not neglect the issues which flow from its provision across Wales or from the potential to work in partnership with the regional network of galleries across the country.

  5. The national and the international

    The distinct visual culture of Wales should be celebrated as a living practice in the context of an international visual culture. Thus the cultural specificity of work made in Wales, historically and currently, will be shown coherently, but not in isolation from work from the rest of the world.

  6. Engaging with contemporary practice

    The working practice of living Welsh artists is a key component in the way that Welsh visual culture is displayed in the Museum, and will, certainly, be an iconic element in any new national gallery.

  7. Multidisciplinarity & Interdisciplinarity

    The visual culture of a nation has a particular role to play in the development and renewal of national identity. Understanding the narrative of this visual culture does demand separate display from other disciplines.

    However, there are many opportunities to work together with these other disciplines in a variety of ways to tell broader stories about the nation, and beyond the nation.

    The effectiveness of particular co-locations of disciplines in one building need further investigation with the audience and potential audience.

  8. What and where might a National Gallery be?

    The debate about the desirability of a new building or institution is far from resolved. There are perceived opportunities and imperatives to build and celebrate the visual culture of the nation, but there are strong imperatives to develop practice as at least as high a priority as new buildings.

    The profile and resource of a new facility might be achieved, without severing the links with international art, historical material and the collections and displays of other disciplines, by an ambitious physical development of NMG.

    The resources required to fulfill all of these missions and be sustainable, robust and internationally recognised, would be significant. Without them any development might stymie important immediate tasks of development and improvement.

  9. The view from the open public meeting

    Whilst there was subscription to the role of the Museum in developing and forging the consensus described in 3 above, and over the need to do further work on the role, location and status of such a development, there is a clear desire to see the debate moved firmly forward.

3.3 The Proposals for Stage 2

NMGW will now spend some time debating and refining its responses to the issues defined in the first stage. It will do so in a process influenced by comment given by contributors to the first stage. A full timetable is included here.

It will bring forward its proposals for second stage consultation, for a complete report to be published by January 2002.

The report will address:

a) what can be achieved in the current three-year planning framework

b) what can be achieved in the longer term


Stage one of the consultation is complete. The report proposes a number of issues, all of which are vital for the future planning processes for NMGW. The issues are complex, and they will therefore require clear responses from NMGW in stage two.

The process of the stage one consultation was very positive for NMGW. It created a platform for building on existing relationships and creating new ones. It affirmed the direction and approach that senior management in NMGW has adopted, and creates an atmosphere of confidence in which to generate our next stage of planning.

Michael Tooby
National Museum & Gallery