Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales

Home

Our Geology galleries at National Museum Cardiff are still closed for essential maintenance. We are changing things around a bit – out with the old and in with the new: we are changing old display screens for new ones; old light bulbs for new ones; old fire beams new ones; old dust – well, for no dust at all. Yes, the dinosaurs are having their vertebrae tickled to release some of the dust of the centuries and keep them looking pretty.

Actually, if you have been to see the dinosaurs recently there is a good chance you have left some of yourself on them. Dust in our galleries is composed of tiny particles that come into the building through our ventilation system (although we have very good air filtration). Other dust particles are fibres from the clothes you wear. But the bulk of dust is, actually – well, there is no easy way of saying this: bits of YOU. Especially hair and skin.

Humans are living beings whose bodies renew themselves constantly. Our skin is our largest organ. New cells are formed constantly at the base layer of the epidermis (the outer part of the skin). These new cells move up through the layers of the epidermis and die as they are further away from blood vessels that supply nutrients. Eventually they reach the corneum, the outermost layer, and slough off.

We love having you in the museum (actually, next time you visit why don’t you bring a friend who hasn’t been for a while). But if you shed your skin while you are in the museum you are inevitably leaving a small part of your body in the building. Nice.

These particles are tiny and very light. They will happily settle on surfaces. Our dinosaurs (and, of course, all other displays) provide ideal surfaces for dust to settle. And no, dust bunnies do not evolve into dust rhinos – so there is no need to set up protective zones to save these cute little things.

Dust will form a layer on objects, which, contrary to popular opinion by people who dislike cleaning, is not protective. On the contrary: dust attracts moisture from the air and then becomes very reactive, which can lead to corrosion and other forms of damage to our objects. This is not only unsightly but can result in expensive conservation treatments or even irreparable damage.

We’re in the business of heritage preservation for the long-term. We want to help keep all of the important national collections for generations to come. This includes removing your dead skin cells from the dinosaur skeletons while we have the space to work in the gallery.

And no, we would not get rid of our vacuum cleaner because it is only collecting dust.

Our Geology galleries are going to re-open on Tuesday 5th July.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

Next week our dinosaurs will go to sleep for two weeks. The Geology exhibition will close for “essential maintenance” – you will have seen similar signs in other places. In our case “essential maintenance” does not mean that the dinosaurs’ toilet is blocked (now we do have coprolites on display but they are well and truly fossilised). But if you thought all the light bulbs were blown and we have to fit new ones you wouldn’t be far off. Except that we never did have any black holes in our galleries – no need to bring miners’ lamps which are absolutely reserved for Big Pit.

What we are going to do does indeed involve changing light bulbs. We need light in order to see, and without light we would not be able to appreciate most objects in museums. Light, however, can damage many types of objects. You may have noticed at home that old photographs fade, as do organic inks and pigments on prints and paintings. Leave a newspaper out on the window sill for a few days and it will have yellowed.

In the museum, where we preserve objects for posterity, the damage done by light can be a major problem. Any such damage is irreversible and cannot be repaired by our best conservators. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is particularly damaging. How long do you think museum objects should last? As part of our collections care, we plan lighting in galleries carefully to leave colours bright and vivid for as long as possible.

The new lighting systems we are fitting this month at National Museum Cardiff will be more energy efficient. In addition, the new lights will be of better quality which means you will see objects more vibrantly yet safely, without causing unnecessary fading. Because the new lights also produce less heat they will make it easier and cheaper to air condition our galleries.

Changing the lights is not all we are going to do – there are a myriad of additional jobs to be done while we have the opportunity. All this takes a little time – between the 20th June and 3rd July. It won’t really be the dinosaurs changing their own lights, of course – there will be technicians, curators and conservators busily climbing ladders and scaffolding.

We do all we can to preserve our national collections and to improve our sustainability. So please bear with us when you see the signs and come back to see the Geology galleries in a new light in early July.

 Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

Between 20 June and 4 July, our popular Evolution of Wales galleries will be closed while we undertake some essential maintenance work.

For these two weeks, visitors will not be able to access areas showing the introduction, Big Bang, Carboniferous forest, dinosaurs, mammoth or the Ice Age animals. Other galleries remain open during this time, including the Diversity of Life gallery (with lots of birds), the mineral collection and all the natural history galleries with the British woodland scene, basking shark, hump back whale skeleton and our new exhibition Wriggle! The art galleries upstairs are also open, unaffected by the maintenance work.

The work covers improved care of the collections and sustainability of the building, including:

  1. Changing the gallery lighting to LED, to reduce electricity consumption, our carbon footprint and costs. LED lighting gives off less heat than conventional lighting so the air conditioning system will work better - it’s better for the items on display, because keeping a stable temperature helps maintain the condition of the objects. LED lighting also reduces future maintenance costs, and changes to the lighting will make the galleries brighter in some places.
  2. Improvements to the fire alarm system so it's better for the collections, the building, staff and visitors.
  3. Upgrading video screens from CRT to HD LCD with touch button interactive controls. This will improve video content delivery, reduce maintenance costs and provide a contemporary aesthetic to the gallery, making units more streamlined.
  4. While the galleries are closed curators will be able to secure some of the items that have become loose in the cases, thus improving their long-term care. They will also clean the displays thus reducing the risk of potential pest infestations – pest management is vital to the care of museum collections.
  5. Finally, installation of the new life-sized recreation of the new Welsh dinosaur, Dracoraptor hanigani as part of the dinosaur display.

Treasures: Adventure in Archaeology has several amazing Welsh finds on display like the Cwm Nant Col Hoard, the Dolgellau Chalice and Paten and the Sully Hoard.  These objects are only a small part of the collection that the National Museum Wales holds.       

Capel Garmon Firedog

In the Iron Age, the hearth was the centre of the home.  Many hearths of high status families would have been decorated with large iron stands called firedogs.  They were often highly designed, most likely to reflect the status of its owner.  In 1852, a firedog was discovered near Llanrwst, Conwy.  Each end was topped off with what looked like a mythical animal, a combination of ox and horse.  Analysis of the object shows that it was made up of 85 different pieces and would have taken several years to construct.  When it was discovered, it had been buried in a boggy area and was in one piece, which led archaeologists to believe that it may have been buried as a ritual offering to the gods.  It was not uncommon for people to put offerings into lakes or bury them in boglands during this period.  

Capel Garmon Fire Dog

 

Langstone Tankard

While people of the past left many objects behind, they don't always survive for us to rediscover.  This is especially true for objects made out of organic material like wood.  However, if the conditions are just right, usually buried in a water-logged and oxygen-free environment, objects can survive.  That’s the case for a handful of wooden tankards dating back to the Late Iron Age or Early Roman Period.  By examining these objects, we are given clues to their use and greater insight to the society who made them.  The Langstone Tankard held about four pints.  It’s unlikely that was a single serving so the tankard may have been passed around, perhaps during a ritual.  One of the most interesting things about the tankard is that it was made out of yew wood.  Yew wood is toxic and, with enough exposure, fatal and according to Roman writings from this time period the toxicity was well known.  However, as with several other plants, in small doses it has been linked to medicinal uses.  It could be that the tankard was used with those medicinal uses in mind.

Langstone tankard

Caergwrle Bowl

One of the most impressive objects has to be the Caergwrle Bowl.  Dating back to the Bronze Age and about 3,200 years old, the bowl is made up of shale, tin and gold.  This was the same time period when the Trojan War was being fought in modern-day Turkey.  It was found in 1823 when workmen were digging drainage ditches at Caergwrle Castle in Denbighshire.  The bowl was in pieces but has since been restored.  Designs were carved into the bowl and then the gold was added.  It is thought that the bowl itself was made to represent a boat and the wave pattern on the bottom certainly furthers that.  There are also shields and oars and even a pair of oculus.  If you have ever seen a drawing of an Ancient Greek or Roman boat (especially the triremes) you will have seen that most of them are decorated with oculi, which were thought to ward off bad luck.  While the Bronze Age people of Britain would have used boats for trading, there has not been a lot of evidence found.  

Caergwrle Bowl

      

Paviland Cave

During the height of the last Ice Age (22,000 to 10,000 BC) the majority of the British Isles were covered by glaciers but we do find evidence of human activity in a few places.  The caves that line the shore of the Gower Peninsula have provided information on some of the earliest people to arrive to Wales.  In 1823, the Red Lady of Paviland was discovered.  This burial was accompanied by beads, tools and rings and the bones were stained with red ochre.  The analysis showed that the Red Lady was in fact a male in his mid-twenties who died around 27,000 BC making it one of the oldest formal burials in Western Europe. 

Illustration of the Red Lady of Paviland burial

I actually visited the Mametz Wood exhibition twice. The first time was the official opening, but as I didn’t see anyone that I knew, I spent most of the time hovering at the back during the speeches and the opera recital (which sounded beautiful, but as I know nothing about opera it went over my head a bit), while feeling spectacularly under-dressed next to all the soldiers in their shiny, smart uniforms.

I enjoyed the exhibition itself very much. The work we had done in youth forum had provided helpful context which meant I could appreciate what I was seeing a whole lot more; the Christopher Williams painting was of course a highlight, as was the World War One stretcher and a pistol owned by Siegfried Sassoon, who had fought at the battle.

It was also great to see the work of the very talented Margaret Williams, who I hadn’t heard of before I joined the youth forum, showcased alongside her male counterparts. However, due to the fact that it was an opening, it was very crowded, and being too British to ask people to move slightly aside I missed some of the exhibits. 

I decided to go back a few days later, and this turned out to be a very good idea. This time, there were old music hall and war songs playing quietly in the background. Combined with the ghostly sketches of soldiers, surrounded by their old possessions, it really made you feel as though you had stepped back in time, which surely is a sign a museum has done its job.

It also seems to enhance the sense of the futility of it all. I was surrounded by images and descriptions communicating the brutality, violence and bloodshed, the enormous sacrifice, and in the end, this was all that was left. A pipe, some faded documents, the stretcher rather than the people it had carried, a few old songs, and a collective national sense of loss. It was hard not to feel emotional. All this suffering may have created beautiful art, but the suffering itself hadn’t been worth it at all. 

There was also a video screen showing an actor reading a section of In Parenthesis, originally by David Jones, now adapted for a new opera. Whether it was because of the skill of the actor (whose name escapes me) or all the things I’d just seen and felt, I found I didn’t need to put the headphones on to understand what he was trying to say. 

So, to conclude. War’s Hell: The Battle of Mametz Wood in Art is well worth a visit. And next time I get invited to an exhibition opening, go with a friend and make more of an effort than just jeans and a jumper.