Amgueddfa Blog: Museums, Exhibitions and Events

I took this picture in June 2011, underground at Aberpergwm Mine near Resolven. In the picture are three mineworkers who were showing me around the workings. The lady in the middle, Katherine Voyle, was the mine geologist. It was her job to study the coal seam and decide which direction to take the head of the mine to maximise the coal output.

I went to the mine to record a video interview with Katherine about her life and how she ended up in this job. Part of my work is to collect ‘real’ people’s history so that future generations can get the true picture of life now. I asked her if it was strange being the only female amongst 300 men. She told me that it was at first but she soon got used to it. The men also accepted her as ‘one of the boys’ now, especially when she was wearing overalls, but they had a real shock if they went into her office after she had changed back into ‘office wear’!

Aberpergwm is a drift mine, in other words it cuts into the side of a valley rather than a deep shaft. The mine actually dipped steeply as we walked over a mile to the face. There, a huge cutting machine was busy and the noise was deafening. After my tour and conducting an interview we walked back up to the daylight. Even though I hadn’t done any physical work my legs were aching just walking in and out!

Katherine, originally from Swansea, told me that before coming to Aberpergwm she had worked on oil rigs in the North Sea and also in Holland. Her real love was the environment and nature and she was busy setting up a nature trail on the land above the mine.

On 15 March we launch our new LGBTQ+ tours at National Museum Cardiff. The tours have been developed in partnership with Pride Cymru working with self-confessed Museum queerator Dan Vo and an amazing team of volunteers.

You may already have read Norena Shopland's blog about the Ladies of Llangollen, and Young Heritage Leader Jake’s post, Queer Snakes! There are so many more LGBTQ+ stories in our collection – stories that have been hidden in dusty museum closets for too long. Friends, it’s time for us to let them out!

To whet your appetite, here’s a quick glimpse at one of the works you might spot on the tour…

The Mower, by Sir William Hamo Thornycoft

The Mower is a bronze statuette on display in our Victorian Art gallery. It is about half a metre high and shows a topless young farmworker in a hat and navvy boots resting with his arm on his hip, holding a scythe. This sassy pose, known as contrapposto, was inspired by Donatello’s David - a work with its own queer story to tell.

The Mower was made by William Hamo Thornycroft, one of the most famous sculptors in Britain in the nineteenth century, and was given to the Museum in 1928 by Sir William Goscombe John. An earlier, life-size version is at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool and is said to be the first significant free-standing sculpture showing a manual labourer made in Britain.

Thornycroft became fascinated with manual labourers and the working classes after being introduced to socialist ideas by his wife, Agatha Cox. He wrote ‘Every workman’s face I meet in the street interests me, and I feel sympathy with the hard-handed toilers & not with the lazy do nothing selfish ‘upper-ten.’ In The Mower, he presents the body of a young working-class man as though it's a classical hero or god – a brave move for the time.

Queering the Mower

With the rising interest in queer theory, many art historians have drawn attention to the queer in this sculpture. In an article by Michael Hatt the work is described as homoerotic, which he describes as that ambiguous space between the homosocial and homosexual.

One of the main factors is the artist’s relationship with Edmund Gosse, a writer and critic who helped establish Thornycroft’s reputation in the art world. Gosse was married with children, but his letters to Thornycroft give us a touching insight into their relationship.

He describes times they spent together basking in the sun in meadows and swimming naked in rivers; and they are filled with love poems and giddy declarations of affection. ‘Nature, the clouds, the grass, everything takes on new freshness and brightness now I have you to share the world with,’ he wrote. Gosse was so obsessed with Thornycroft that writer Lytton Strachey famously joked he wasn’t homosexual, but Hamo-sexual.

Gosse and Thornycroft were spending time together when the first inspiration for The Mower hit. They were sailing with a group of friends up the Thames when they spotted a real-life mower on the riverbank, resting. Thornycroft made a quick sketch, and the idea for the sculpture was born. A wax model sketch from 1882 is at the Tate.

The real-life mower they saw was wearing a shirt, but for his sculpture Thornycroft stripped him down. He explained to his wife that he wanted to ‘keep his hat on and carry his shirt’ and that a brace over his shoulder will help ‘take off the nude look’.

Brace or no brace, it’s difficult to hide the fact that this is a celebration of the male body designed for erotic appeal. Thornycroft used an Italian model, Orazio Cervi. Cervi was famous in Victorian Britain for his ‘perfectly proportioned physique’ (art historical speak for a hot bod!)

Later in the century, photographs of The Mower and other artworks were collected and exchanged in secret along with photographs of real life nudes, by a network of men mostly in London – a kind of queer subculture, although it wouldn’t have been understood in those terms back then.

This was dangerous ground. The second half of the nineteenth century saw what has been described as a ‘homosexual panic’, with rising anxieties around gender identity, sexuality and same-sex desire. Fanny and Stella, the artist Simeon Solomon and Oscar Wilde were among many who were hounded and publicly prosecuted for ‘indecent’ behaviour.

These tensions showed up in the art world too. Many of the artists associated with the Aesthetic and Decadent movements in particular were under scrutiny for producing works that were described as ‘effeminate’, ‘degenerate’ or ‘decadent’. But works like The Mower suggest that art might have provided a safer space for playing out private desires in a public arena at this time.

 

Book your place on our free volunteer-led LGBTQ+ tours here, and keep an eye on our website and social media for future dates!  

 

The current display Imagine a Castle: Paintings from the National Gallery, London offers a great opportunity to see a selection of European Old Master paintings for the first time in Wales alongside Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales’s own collection.

Comparing European and Welsh castles and the history and legends that come with them plays a vital part in defining Welsh cultural identity. Yet the history of castles in Wales is, for some, contentious.

To find out why we need to go back to the thriteenth century. During this time, there were many disputes between Welsh princes and English kings. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (last Prince of Wales) was involved in many disputes with Edward I, who launched a vicious campaign on the Welsh. This resulted in Llywelyn losing his power, land, titles and ultimately his life.

Following this English victory, Edward began the most ambitious castle-building policy ever seen in Europe. His collection of fortresses became known as the infamous ‘iron ring’ and included those at Harlech, Caernarfon and Conwy. They were intended to intimidate the Welsh and subdue uprisings. Along with these English-built fortresses came new towns that were intentionally populated with English settlers. Welsh people were forbidden to trade or sometimes even enter into the towns’ walls. Yet, while these castles remind us of English power over the Welsh, the strength of their construction underlines that Edward was conscious of the formidable and ever-present threat of Welsh resistance.

To acknowledge the histories of castles in Wales, we have included works from two Welsh artists, the ‘father of British landscape painting’, Richard Wilson, whose works offer an eighteenth-century perspective, and contemporary artist Peter Finnemore.

Wilson’s work reflects his travels to Italy and the influence of the hugely important French landscape painter, Claude Lorrain, whose work can also be seen in this exhibition. Wilson painted many Welsh landscapes and is recognised as changing the face of British landscape painting. While his work encouraged artists to come to Wales, many of his later Welsh compositions, such as Caernarfon Castle (Edward’s main seat in Wales) remind us more of the warmer climates of Italy. As such, they also point to his inspirations outside of Wales.

On the other hand, Finnemore’s photographic works, Lesson 56 – Wales and Ancient Ruler Worship (made especially for this display), look at castles in Wales from a more recent Welsh perspective. Finnemore’s work revolves around his Welsh-speaking grandmother’s school textbooks that were written from an English standpoint. Her childhood drawings in these books humorously undermine the didactic English text. Ancient Ruler Worship depicts Castell Carreg Cennen and looks back to World War II. It is taken from a still in Humphry Jennings’s propaganda film, Silent Village, that portrayed this castle as a site of Welsh resistance during an imagined Nazi invasion. The film demonstrated solidarity with Lidice, a mining village in the Czech Republic that was totally destroyed by the Nazis.

Whatever we may feel about their history, many of Edward’s Welsh castles are now designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Edward left a unique and internationally important legacy of medieval military architecture that can only be seen in Wales.

The dinosaur skeleton we know and love as Dippy, has an interesting history. But we know these fossils were first called Diplodocus, right? Well, no probably not….

We’ve heard about how ‘Dippy’ came to London in 1905 – a plaster cast of the original fossil bones kept in the Carnegie Museum Pittsburgh. And thanks to palaeontologists, we can picture it as a living animal browsing in Jurassic forests 145-150 million years ago – seeing off predators with its whip-like tail.

But what about the middle of the story? Where did these fossils come from?

AC-NMW

In 1898 thanks to the steel industry, Andrew Carnegie was one of the richest people in the world. He was busy giving away money for libraries and museums. Hearing about the discovery of huge dinosaurs in the American West he said something like ‘Get us one of those!’, sending a Carnegie Museum team to find a “most colossal animal”.

So, in 1899 in the last days of the American Old West, a Diplodocus skeleton was discovered at Sheep Creek, Albany County on the plains of Wyoming, USA. It happened to be the 4th of July, Independence Day, which prompted the Carnegie team to give the fossil its first nickname - ‘The Star Spangled Dinosaur’. Predictably though, this new species was later published as Diplodocus carnegii.

The dig site would have looked very similar to this one at the nearby Bone Cabin Quarry one year earlier.

To set the scene, these late 1800's photographs are from other parts of Albany County, Wyoming (via Wikimedia Commons).

Dippy’s first name, “Unkche ghila”.

But what about the original people of the plains, the Native Americans? Wouldn’t they have found dinosaur fossils before the European settlers? In her book “Fossil Legends of the First Americans” Adrienne Mayor shows that indeed they did. They visualised the fossils’ original forms as Giant Lizards, Thunder Birds, and Water Monsters, and several of the famous dinosaur collectors had Native American guides. This book shows that Native American ideas about fossils were perceptive of the geological processes involved such as extinction, volcanoes, and sea level change.

( “Clear”, Lakota people, 1900. Heyn & Matzen

The original people of the plains where Diplodocus fossils are found are the Lakota Sioux. James LaPointe of the Lakota people was born in 1893, and recalls a legend he heard as a boy:

“The Sioux called these creatures “Unkche ghila”, roughly comparable to dinosaurs; these oddly shaped animals moved across the land in great numbers and then disappeared. The massive bones of these now extinct creatures can be found in the badlands south and east of the Black Hills. It is not clear when the unkche ghila went extinct, but Sioux geology maintains they were still around when the Black Hills rose from the earth.” From James R. Walker , 1983. ‘Lakota Myth’.

So, via Adrienne Mayor, I’ll give the last word here to the US National Park Service:

“The stories and legends told by American Indians offer a unique perspective into the traditional spiritual significance of fossils and offer an exceptional opportunity to illustrate the interconnectedness of humans and nature.” Jason Kenworthy and Vincent Santucci, “A Preliminary Inventory of National Park Service Paleontological Resources in Cultural Resource Contexts.”

Where do I start when talking about the experience that has been Dippy?! 

Well he’s certainly been a phenomenon for us here at Amgueddfa Cymru. Right from when we first started installing him back in October last year, people were standing on the balcony watching the very efficient team from the Natural History Museum putting him together piece by piece. Of course we saved the head going on until last! I was fortunate to be permitted into the enclosure and up close to some of the replicated bones, which was very exciting for me.

In the first half term in October we had 53,898 visitors to the museum, an increase of 258% on the previous year. On the Wednesday we had over 10,000 visitors, which is a first for us! What we had been prepared for by a previous venue, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, but that might not instantly occur to you, is that we needed more toilet rolls! Not a very glamorous aspect of Exhibitions & Displays, but a very important one for our visitors! In my last blog I talked a lot about Snake poo, so I’m moving on swiftly from toilet rolls now before I gain a reputation for obsessing about poo! Our front of house staff had their work cut out for them; ensuring visitors could access the whole museum, answering questions on Dippy and keeping them safe. I spent some time in the Main Hall and these amazing people worked so hard. But it wasn’t just in the Main Hall. The galleries were full, especially our Natural History galleries, which was great as we had additional visitors to the museum to see Dippy, but they stayed to explore more of what we have to offer.

We have a special Dippy shop which has been equally full and busy, with staff rushed off their feet – my favourite item is the glittery dinosaur.  There may have been debate about what dinosaurs looked like, but I’m pretty sure no one has found evidence for sequins as yet! Our colleagues in the restaurant and cafe made special menus to account for the increase in visitor footfall, as well as the opportunity to make dinosaur cakes!

In our Temporary Exhibitions Gallery, which was open to the public during holidays and weekends, our colleagues from the Youth Forum worked with artist Megan Broadmeadow to create a strong message about Fast Fashion from recycled clothes. I’m trying to work out where we can keep the pterosaur, which is brilliant. Our messages about the climate emergency within the exhibition and also when Extinction Rebellion Cardiff came and held a ‘die in’ are, for me, highlights of what a museum can achieve when we work with people from outside our organization and be led by their inspiration and creativity.

I’ve spoken with staff from across the museum and everyone seems to have enjoyed having Dippy here, it’s going to seem very empty when he goes at the end of this month – you have until 26 January to see him.