Amgueddfa Blog

In the first part of my blog I discussed a little about the role myself and two fellow volunteers undertook when completing an exhibition evaluation placement as part of the ARTIST ROOMS: August Sander exhibition at National Museum Cardiff. In this second part I would like to explain more about why I applied for this placement and how my experience highlights the significance of recording exhibition evaluation feedback.

As this placement presented an opportunity to work with a photography exhibition, I wanted the chance not only to get to know the work of Sander but to gain an understanding of photography as an aesthetic and material format. Moreover, my primary area of art-historical knowledge is based around painting, print and decorative art. So, the placement offered me a kind of prompt to discover more about how photographs can be displayed to encourage diverse public interaction.

A photograph of the ARTIST ROOMS: August Sander exhibition, showing the entire gallery from the entrance

As well, I thought that aiding my understanding of why curatorial decisions are made regarding the display of photographic material, and especially how younger audiences can be reached though utilising particular curatorial strategies, would be beneficial. Exhibition evaluation, too, is something which I think is essential to help assess what elements worked, what didn’t and how visitor feedback could point towards creating more engaging displays in the future. Just as significantly, I was keen to take on a role that involved being a presence in the gallery, watch people interact with the work and listen to what they thought about it.

During the placement, the fact that we were physically situated in the Sander exhibition certainly permitted enjoyable conversation with a variety of visitors. Many had come specifically to see Sander’s portraits, but a sizeable number stumbled across the exhibition during their museum exploration. By talking with us in the gallery space, as well as being able to record opinions on the iPad surveys, feedback could be collected through conversation and, of course, directly via online survey for the more formal collective evaluation. Furthermore, we could relay feedback in relation to how visitors experienced and negotiated the different thematic and spatial parts of Sander’s show as we spent so much time within it.

A photograph of the ARTIST ROOMS: August Sander exhibition, showing the east wall of the gallery

A photograph of the ARTIST ROOMS: August Sander exhibition, showing the visitor feedback section, with a graffiti comment wall, table and chairs and a bean bag

Sadly, plans to extend the exhibition evaluation placement to encompass the Imagine a Castle: Paintings from the National Gallery exhibition, which ran concurrently to Sander’s exhibition, have been curtailed for now. However, I look forward to returning to spend time with the art and interacting with exhibition audiences soon!

Many thanks to ARTIST ROOMS, the Henry Moore Foundation and The Colwinston Charitable Trust for their support of the Exhibitions Programmes at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales.

Colwinston Charitable Trust logo, orange logo with black mouse and the words Colwinston Charitable Trust

It’s really important that we continue to stay at home and stay safe here in Wales. During this Whitsun week many of you are getting creative and camping in the garden or enjoying a staycation in the caravan on the drive. Some of you might be reminded of camping or caravanning trips to the Urdd Eisteddfod over the years, or to some of your favourite holiday spots along our coast. So, to help us all with a little holiday nostalgia as we stay at home, here’s Ian Smith, Curator at the National Waterfront Museum with a little of the history behind this picture:

This image was taken about 1951 and features the Dodds family who lived in Cardiff. Mr Dodds commissioned the caravan in 1950 to be built and fitted out by Louis Blow & Co in Canton, Cardiff. The van cost £600.00 which was a small fortune in those days. The family toured all over South Wales, eventually though the van was left permanently on a farmer’s field near Newport in Pembrokeshire. There, the family had all their summer holidays until 2009.

The family planned the layout and it included such things as a special cupboard top that the baby’s carry cot would fit perfectly; a fold down double bed for Mother and Father and a sliding oak dividing screen which effectively formed two bedrooms. There was a small kitchen with a gas stove and a sink with a footpump tap to provide washing water. Drinking water had to be colleced in big aluminium containers – a good job for the children if they needed tiring out. The awning doubled the size of the living space and provided an area to keep things dry.

In 2009 the museum was offered the caravan by Michael Dodds, then in his 70s. Mike is the older boy at the back of the group in the picture. The caravan is on display in St Fagans National Museum of History in the ‘Life Is …’ Gallery.

Update: Due to popular demand we are now opening our #MinecraftYourMuseum competition to six year olds! Please share and let the six year olds across the Nation know! 

Competition for 6-11 year olds. 

The Challenge: Use your imagination to build your dream museum in Minecraft. Decide how you would like the building to look and fill it with some of your favourite Museum objects. They could be anything from any of our seven museums, such as a Dinosaur, a Roman coin or a house from St Fagans!

Prizes: Win a VIP trip for you & your whole class to your chosen museum - when schools re-open!  A prize will be awarded to each year group (Yrs. 2-6).

Deadline: 30 June 2020

The now quiet space of National Museum Cardiff’s contemporary art galleries has most recently played host to the Museum’s first full-scale series of photographic exhibitions. The artwork displayed comprised part of the museum’s first ‘Photography Season’, presenting work by four photographers: August Sander (1876–1964), Bernd (1931–2007) and Hilla Becher (1934–2015), and Martin Parr (b. 1952). While Parr’s exhibition sat opposite the contemporary art galleries in the Museum’s designated photography gallery, Bernd and Hilla Becher: Industrial Visions was shown on the upper level of the contemporary spaces. The Bechers’ work was thematically linked to that presented downstairs, ARTIST ROOMS: August Sander (October 2019-March 2020).

A photograph of the ARTIST ROOMS: August Sander exhibition, showing a series of square black and white portrait photographs in a line on a blank white wall

For myself and two other fabulous volunteers, March marked the end of a three-month exhibition evaluation placement as part of the ARTIST ROOMS programme within Sander’s portrait photography exhibition space. I would like to briefly expand upon the role that I undertook in this two-part blog and highlight the value of the process of collecting and collating exhibition evaluation feedback.

It is valuable to give a few details of the photographer August Sander (1876–1964). Sander was a German-born photographer and in 1911 began the first series of portraits for his seminal work People of the 20th Century. ARTIST ROOMS: August Sander presented over eighty photographs – produced as part of this project – which classify individuals according to profession and social class. The portraits are placed on long-term loan to ARTIST ROOMS, a UK-wide programme jointly delivered by the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. The ARTISTS ROOMS programme’s aim is to show the work of each of the 40 artists it represents in dedicated solo exhibitions across the UK. Through ARTIST ROOMS important works of art can be widely seen by visitors and, importantly, it also gives young people the opportunity to get involved in creative projects, learn more about art and artists, and develop new skills.

My role, as one of the three exhibition evaluation placements, was to allow visitors to ARTIST ROOMS: August Sander a chance to fill in an online survey on one of two iPads lent to the museum by ARTIST ROOMS for its duration. The survey asked the visitor a multitude of questions about their experience of the exhibition. It also asked some statistical questions, which could be omitted or simply passed back to us to reset.

A photograph of the ARTIST ROOMS: August Sander exhibition, showing the entire gallery with small photos on the walls and wooden benches in the middle

Additionally, we chatted to visitors in the exhibition space, including those who wanted to discuss the exhibition informally with us. As the weekends always tend to draw in a diverse and greater number of visitors, at least one of us tried to come on Saturdays for a few hours to do the surveys, as well as undertake at least one shift during the week, sometimes in a pair, occasionally all together and at other times singly.

The second part of the blog expands upon my reasons for wishing to undertake this placement and the importance of exhibition evaluation.

Last week, we launched an online questionnaire asking for your experiences and feelings of living in Wales during the coronavirus pandemic. From the responses we’ve received so far, it seems that a number of you are finding comfort and peace of mind through making – from quilts to facemasks, scrub bags to small embroideries. The connection between making and improved mental health is of course widely-known, with studies showing that craft and the visual arts can help to alleviate anxiety and stress in some people.

The textile collection at St Fagans includes several pieces which reveal the historic interplay between craft and mental health. These include needlework stitched by sailors on long voyages away from home, to more formal forms of occupational therapy made by convalescing patients. In all cases, we can only assume that the repetitive rhythm of the making process, and the focus required to complete the task, must have benefitted the makers in some way. I say ‘assume’ because the voices of these makers are usually missing from the narrative, which makes documenting current experiences of crafting through the pandemic even more important.

One of the most poignant pieces in the collection is a tablecloth made at Whitchurch Hospital, embroidered with the signatures of a group of soldier-patients and staff in 1917. During the First World War, the Cardiff City Mental Hospital (as Whitchurch was then called) was ceded to the military and became known as the Welsh Metropolitan War Hospital (1915-19). Civilian psychiatric patients were moved to other institutions, while injured soldiers returning from the frontline occupied their beds. From 1917 until 1919, the hospital specialized in both orthopaedic and mental health conditions.   

The signatures embroidered on the tablecloth include two important figures in the history of psychiatric care in Wales – Dr Edwin Goodall and Matron Florence Raynes. Goodall, an eminent psychiatrist who trained at Guy’s Hospital in London, was appointed the first Medical Superintendent of Whitchurch in 1906, two years before the hospital opened. He was awarded a CBE in 1919 for his pioneering treatment of shell-shock. Florence Raynes was also a trailblazer in her own right, being the first woman to have overall responsibility for the hospital's entire nursing staff. 

The exact reasons for creating the tablecloth are unknown. Was it made as a form of occupational or diversional therapy for the soldiers? Could it have been an exhibition piece or a fund-raiser? Or perhaps initiated as a memento for a patient, nurse or doctor? Despite several attempts in recent years to unravel its history, the tablecloth remains a mystery. 

In general, the feelings and intentions of makers are frustratingly absent from our records, and we know very little about the emotions of the people who crafted the historic objects in our care. How did they feel about making in times of crisis, ill-health or confinement? What did the creative process give them? If you're finding solace in your sewing machine or knitting needles during these difficult days, please consider sharing your lockdown crafting experience with us through the questionnaire. We want to hear your story to ensure that the wellbeing benefits of making in the present do not go untold.