Amgueddfa Blog: Museums, Exhibitions and Events

At the National Waterfront Museum our aim is to bring the story of Wales, its people and the industries that have shaped our nation to life for school pupils through hands-on, unique experiences. For the past 15 years we have been part of an innovative collaboration with experienced theatre company, Theatr na nÓg, Swansea Museum and Technocamps. It is a partnership like no other in Wales, if not the UK. It combines live theatre, local and national museum collections with Technocamps’ expertise.   

This year marks 80 years since the sinking of the Arandora Star, whose tragic, little-known story will be vividly brought to life for school pupils across Wales through Theatr na nÓg’s radio play. Sadly 805 people lost their lives, including Welsh Italians who were onboard, on their way to internment camps in Canada. This year’s play will focus on Lina, a young girl living in Swansea facing an uncertain future after Italy joins the War in 1940. Her father is taken from their little Swansea café and transported on the Arandora Star.

Normally at this time of year we would be busy getting the final detail of our workshops together, ready to welcome thousands of school children through the Museum doors but 2020 has been very different for us all. With Covid-19 and the lockdowns that followed, delivering our normal workshops seemed impossible. However, this has challenged us to be more creative and has pushed our small team to develop a digital workshop comprised of short films and teachers’ resource to complement the radio play, The Arandora Star, focusing on the story of technology and innovation during the Second World War. 

So in our online workshops, learners will meet Captain Edward Morgan of the Royal Navy who will guide them through some information about the sinking of the Arandora Star and discuss some innovative communication technology that was used during the Second World War. Alongside this we have developed a teacher's resource with activities and suggestions for further work, all of which supports the new Curriculum for Wales 2022.  

Just prior to lockdown we were able to run the first LGBTQ+ tours at the National Museum Cardiff which were created in partnership with Pride Cymru. As the doors unlock and visitors can start to return to the museum and also to mark and celebrate Pride Cymru 2020, I would like to share with you my favourite set of objects from the tours.

LGBTQ+ Tours
© Dan Vo @DanNouveau

An Encounter with May and Mary

Sleeve clasp made by May Morris (1862-1938)

When I first saw the exquisite silver sleeve clasps with a centrally suspended chrysoprase teardrop gemstone flanked by two apple-green orbs, I was utterly charmed. What rooted me to the spot and caused goosebumps to tickle my skin though was the name of the owner and the donor: Miss May Morris, given by Miss M. F. V. Lobb.

Echoing in my mind was a talk, The Great Wings of Silence, that I’d seen Dr Sean Curran deliver at an LGBT+ History Month event at the V&A museum on their relationship. Curran also wrote about May Morris (1862-1938) and Mary Frances Vivian Lobb (1879-1939) saying, “people like Mary Lobb and May Morris are part of a still barely visible queer heritage that can contribute to legitimising contemporary queer identities”.

I felt what I was seeing was evidence of their relationship. Though, as it turns out, there are two great collections that hold jewellery made by May and gifted by Mary, National Museum Cardiff and my ‘home collection’ of the V&A. Somewhat ironic! 

 

The Welsh Connection

The link between May and the V&A, I think, is easy to deduce: William Morris had significant influence in the early years of the V&A and after he died May, a respected artist in her own right, carried on his work teaching about good design principles and maintained a strong relationship with the museum. 

While the Morris family were proud of their Welsh ancestry, the question of how May’s jewellery ended up specifically at National Museum Cardiff involves a curious path that takes in sites from all across Wales, and certainly affirms the significant relationship between May and Mary.

May was a skilled jewellery maker and embroiderer and took charge of the embroidery department of her father’s renowned company Morris & Co. when she was 23. By the time Mary came into her life, May was living alone in the Morris family summer residence, Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswold.

Mary was from a Cornish farming family and during the First World War and as an early recruit to the Women’s Land Army she was involved in demonstrations showing how women could support the war efforts, even making the news with a headline “Cornish Woman Drives Steam Roller”!

At some point after the war, Mary joined May at Kelmscott Manor and the couple became a familiar sight, even attending local events together. Then, perhaps as it is for some now, not everyone was sure what to make of the relationship: Mary has been variously described as Morris’s close companion, housekeeper, cook, and even bodyguard!

When May died in 1938 she bequeathed her personal effects and £12,000 to Mary, an amount larger than any she left to anyone else. She also secured the tenure of Kelmscott for the rest of Mary’s life, however, Mary tragically died five months later in 1939. In those short months, Mary arranged the donation of May’s jewellery as well as her own scrapbooks to the National Library of Wales.

The scrapbooks were not given much consideration and were broken up and scattered across various sections of the library. It was researcher Simon Evans who began slowly reassembling the collection, and as he did so started to realise the significance and how it helps paint a clearer picture of the relationship between May and Mary.

Rediscovered items include watercolour landscapes painted by May, which suggests the pair traveled extensively together across Wales with journeys including Cardigan, Gwynedd, Swansea, Talyllyn and Cader Idris (one of my favourite images of the couple is a photograph from the William Morris Gallery that shows them camping in the Welsh countryside).

 

The Queer Perspective

Sandwiched in the scrapbooks is also a cryptic note in a letter from May to Mary, "after posting letter, I just grasped the thread at the end of yours, and having grasped (how slow of me!) I will be most careful.” 

To contextualise, Evans also describes a postcard (at Kelmscott Manor), written on a trip in Wales, in which Mary asked someone back at the Manor to send Morris’s shawl which is in "our" bedroom, which seems to put to bed the rumour May and Mary shared a room. Further, writer and curator Jan Marsh concludes in her book Jane and May Morris by saying the relationship between May and Mary was, in contemporary terms, a lesbian one.

LGBTQ+ Tours
© Dan Vo @DanNouveau

Through the jewelry gifted to the National Museum Cardiff we have a small glimpse of two lives intertwined, an intimate relationship between May and Mary that was full of love, care, and concern for each other. Theirs is one story among many on the free volunteer-led LGBTQ+ tours, which will return in the future when it is safe to do so.

In the meantime, labels for 18 objects have now been written that help highlight works with an LGBTQ+ connection for visitors. Connected to the May and Mary is a stunning hair ornament, which resembles a tiara, formed by floral shapes studded with pearls, opals, and garnets with silver leaves, all meeting symmetrically in the middle of the head. 

There are landscapes and a self-portrait by Swansea born painter Cedric Morris and several portraits by the renowned Gwen John who hails from Haverfordwest, as well as a bust of her by lover Rodin. Other highlights include works by Francis Bacon, John Minton, Christopher Wood, and 'Brunette' - a ceramic bust of Hollywood star Greta Garbo by Susie Cooper.

It is also now possible to explore the museum’s queer collection online by searching for ‘LGBTQ’ in the Collections Online. This will allow you to see works like The Wounded Amazon by Conwy sculptor John Gibson, a painting of Fisher Boys by Methyr Tydfil born artist Penry Williams (Gibson and Williams lived together in Rome and are understood to be lovers), and a ceramic plate that features perhaps the most famous lesbian couple in history, the Ladies of Llangollen, who lived together at Plâs Newydd. 

It is a joy and a privilege to be able to share the rich history of Welsh queer culture in such a historic place. I'm pleased to say the tours and the related research are merely just getting started! There are so many more stories to be found and told, many that will take us down interesting intersectional paths too. So do stay tuned for more from the National Museum Cardiff and Pride Cymru volunteers. 

For now I wish you a happy Pride. However you’re celebrating it, I hope it’s with as much sparkle as May and Mary’s glamorous bling! 

LGBTQ+ tour leaders


Dan Vo is a freelance museum consultant who founded the V&A LGBTQ+ Tours and developed the Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd National Museum Cardiff LGBTQ+ Tours. He is currently the project manager and lead researcher of the Queer Heritage and Collections Nework, a subject specialist network supported by the Art Fund formed of a partnership between the National Trust, English Heritage, Historic England, Historic Royal Palaces and the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (University of Leicester).

Many industrial processes are inspired by nature, and can be seen as a mechanised extension of a traditional hand process using tools from the natural world. The Teasel Gig is one such invention. Here's a little about this extraordinary machine which is a mixture of the natural and man made.

Teasels were traditionally used to ‘comb’ the surface of damp woollen cloth by hand to

Teasel Gig

make it soft and fluffy. This process is called ‘raising the nap’.

The Teasel Gig machine was invented to make this process faster and more efficient. The teasel gig contains 3000 prickly teasels in an iron frame and is powered by electricity. The cloth is passed over the teasels, giving it a more even, fluffy finish.

The Teasel Gig is a curious mix of the natural and man-made. It combined the hand processes of the past with precision engineering – the future of the textile industry

Teasel Gig with Teasels at The National Wool Museum, Drefach Felindre

A ‘Teasel Man’ travelled from mill to mill renewing the teasels in the gigs. It was a very skilled job as the teasel heads had to be carefully arranged to ensure the cloth was finished evenly. Most of the teasels came from specialist gardens in Somerset

We'll be celebrating the re-opening of the National Waterfront Museum after more than four months in verse, with a specially commissioned poem about life in lockdown, woven through by your words. This week, we're launching a campaign to get our visitors, fans, and community to contribute words and phrases for what will become a poetic legacy of these unprecedented times for the city and surrounding area.

All being well, on 28th August, we'll be unlocking the museum's doors and look forward to welcoming you all back, albeit on a pre-booked, ticketed (free ticket) entry basis, to manage numbers and maintain social distancing measures.

2020 marks the National Waterfront Museum’s 15th anniversary. When it opened in October 2005, it was to the words of a poem by the then National Poet of Wales, Gwyneth Lewis. So, for the unlocking of the doors this August, we want to conjure words, rhythms and rhymes once more, this time with your help!

Datgloi ~ Unlock will be a poetic celebration of the unlocking of our doors. We're asking the community of Swansea, our visitors and fans to let us know two things, each in 280 characters, which is the length of a tweet:

  • Describe your experience of lockdown (ANSWER IN 280 characters or less)
  • Why are you looking forward to the re-opening of the National Waterfront Museum? (ANSWER IN 280 characters or less)

Those wishing to get involved and submit their thoughts and words are invited to do so via the museum’s Facebook Page:

https://www.facebook.com/waterfrontmuseum 

or by Tweeting @the_waterfront and using #DatgloiUnlock

or by emailing us on DatgloiUnlock@museumwales.ac.uk

Through this project, our aim is to gather a sense of the lock-down experience for the people of Swansea and the region, and to understand what re-opening the museum will mean for you. The commissioned poets, Aneirin Karadog and Natalie Ann Holborow will then take these statements and craft them into two poems, one in Welsh, the other in English.

Speaking about the project, the Head of the National Waterfront Museum, Steph Mastoris said:

“Over the coming weeks, we’ll be engaging our local audiences and followers through social media and asking them to share a phrase or two about lockdown and what they’re most looking forward to seeing / doing when our museum reopens. Our commissioned poets will then use these words and phrases as the basis and inspiration for their poems, so that they reflect the experiences of our community during lockdown, and celebrate the unlocking of our museum, which over the past 15 years has found it’s place at the heart of the city’s community.”

The poets commissioned for this project both have strong connections with the Swansea area. 

Aneirin Karadog who will compose the Welsh language poem for Datgloi ~ Unlock

Aneirin Karadog is a poet, broadcaster, performer and linguist. He was brought up in Llanrwst before moving to Pontardawe in the 1980s

He graduated from New College, Oxford University, with a degree in French and Spanish. His mother is Breton and his father is Welsh; he can speak Welsh, English, Breton, French and Spanish fluently.

Aneirin is a familiar face on S4C, and a chaired bard of the National Eisteddfod (2016). He composes poetry on a range of metres from syncopatic rap to the ancient and fiendishly difficult Welsh language form, cynghanedd, and his work has been published widely.

Natalie Ann Holborow who will create the English language poem for Datgloi ~ Unlock

Natalie Ann Holborow is proud to be from Dylan Thomas’ hometown.

She is the multi award-winning Welsh writer whose debut collection, 'And Suddenly You Find Yourself' (Parthian, 2017) was listed as one of Wales Arts Review's 'Best of 2017' and was launched at the International Kolkata Literary Festival. She is a finalist for the Cursed Murphy International Spoken Word award and her second collection, 'Small', will be published by Parthian in 2020.

We're grateful to Literature Wales who advised and helped us set up this project. The poems will be unveiled at the opening of the National Waterfront Museum, planned for 28 August.

The National Museum of Wales is currently collecting reflections and memories of Covid 2020. Find out more about our Collecting Covid: Wales 2020 project here: www.museum.wales/collecting-covid/

 

I can’t believe that 21 years have passed since Fron Haul was officially opened at the National Slate Museum. This was my first project at the Museum, and as someone who grew up in the area, I feel extremely lucky to be associated with Fron Haul. The following is a piece I wrote back in 1999.

Why Fron Haul?

Originally located on the edge of the road in Tanygrisiau; the buildings were chosen because they are typical of the cramped terraces characteristic of the quarrying towns and villages.

When it came to re-erecting and interpreting these houses, we decided to take the lead from the popular and successful Rhyd-y-car terrace. But rather than limit the story to Tanygrisiau, each house not only illustrates different periods, but also depicts different quarrying areas.

‘Golden Age’

The houses are first recorded in the 1861 Census - with the slate industry well on its way to becoming one of the most important industries in Wales and the main employer in Gwynedd. As demand for slate increased, men moved from neighbouring agricultural areas to work in the quarries. In a number of cases quarrymen would stay the working week in the barracks, built near the quarries, returning to their homes for the weekend. With the building of houses near the quarries, many of the families moved to join the breadwinner, forming new and unique communities. As would be expected, Fron Haul’s first inhabitants were quarrymen born in parishes outside Ffestiniog.

However, there weren’t enough houses to meet the demands of the growing workforce. According to the 1871 Census, seven people lived in one of the Fron Haul houses.  As well as the father and mother, there lived a 13 year old daughter, two sons, six and one year old, a 27 year old servant and a 29 year old lodger. Considering the houses originally only had one bedroom, it’s hard to imagine how they managed. In addition to overcrowding, damp was a problem, the water was impure and the sewage system primitive.  It is no wonder that diseases such as typhoid and tuberculosis were rife.

The Penrhyn Lockout

Although the quarryman received a reasonably fair wage, there was nothing to protect them from losing their jobs or receiving wage cuts in times of recession. There were periodical strikes and lock-outs, the most prominent being the Penrhyn Lockout - one of the longest running disputes in the industrial history of Britain, extended from November 1900 until November 1903.

Furnishing the house to reflect the poverty and hardship of a family on strike was quite a challenge, especially as the visitor’s eyes are naturally drawn to the oak dresser with its Willow Pattern plates and the lustre jugs; the ornaments on the mantelpiece and pictures on the walls. But there are a few clues – the sign 'Nid oes Bradwr yn y tŷ hwn’(There is no traitor in this house), that was displayed in the windows of everyone still on strike, showing clearly which side they were on. The wives and children would have used the conch-shell on the windowsill as a trumpet to shame the ‘traitors’ as they returned home from the quarry. Upstairs, in the main bedroom the father’s trunk is in the process of being packed as heads to The Tumble, Carmarthenshire. It’s estimated that between 1,400 and 1,600 quarrymen moved to south Wales to work in the coal mines and support their families during the Strike.

End of an Era

The Strike failed in its aim, and the industry declined soon after. The closure of such an influential quarry as Penrhyn for three whole years starved the market of its supply of slate, and merchants turned their sights towards foreign markets for roofing materials.

Quarries gradually closed, with the process reaching its peak between 1969 and 1971 when work came to an end at three of the previous mainstays: Dinorwig, Dorothea and Oakeley.

In less than a century, the slate industry developed, grew, then declined.  The houses have been furnished to reflect this change within the slate industry.