Cymraeg

In the last two weeks our Geology galleries at National Museum Cardiff have been closed to the public due to major refurbishments. We are coming to the end now, we are just asking for your patience for a few more days before opening the permanent exhibition again.

We have already written about some of the work in the gallery: cleaning and repairing displays and changing lighting. In addition, we have replaced display screens and fire beams, and here’s why and how.

There are a number of videos in the galleries which used to be played from medieval cathode ray tubes – if you are as old as me you will remember the old TV screens which were always surprisingly front-heavy when you had to lift them. They are larger (deeper, which limits exhibition space), use more electricity and have a lower resolution than the new flat screens we just installed. If you are a regular visitor you will notice that the screens are not sticking out of the wall as much as they used to. And the resolution is sooo much better now! The videos are now much clearer for you, the visitor, while we, the museum, will save money on our electricity bills which we can then invest in improved collection care and exhibitions – everybody wins.

At the same time we used the gallery closure to work at height – underneath the ceiling, to be precise. Fire safety is more than a legal requirement for us; it is part of our work to care for the national collections. After all, if the museum burns down a large part of your heritage disappears forever. From time to time, even fire and smoke detection equipment needs servicing. This was undertaken this week by a specialist company. And this certainly caused a bit of a stir in the building.

As in your house, the smoke detection equipment is situated underneath the ceiling. It’s just that the ceiling in our Geology galleries is about 12m high. We can’t get there with ladders or scissor lifts, not to speak of all the displays that are in the way. The solution was to climb up the walls. So if any staff are still wondering what why there was a man dangling from the ceiling – it wasn’t a burglar, as in the 1996 film Mission: Impossible, but a rope access operator keeping the museum save from fire.

We are now in the process of completing the last few pieces of work and cleaning up in the next few days. The exhibition will be open to the public again on Tuesday 5th July.

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

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.

This blog is about fossils whose beautiful patterns have intrigued us for as long as we’ve been human. These animals survived the evolutionary power struggles of the past to leave their relatives in today’s oceans. They are the Sea Urchins, or to give them their scientific name, the Family Echinoidea - Echinoids to their friends.

A ‘Hedgehog’ by name, but not by nature

Their name comes from the Greek ‘Echinus’, meaning Hedgehog, because of their spines. People in the Middle Ages had the idea that each kind of land animal had a matching version living in the sea; sea-horses, sea-cows, and so on. So the spiky Echinoid was naturally called a Sea-Hedgehog. This might sound daft today, but we still call the Echinoids’ cousins “Starfish” though we know they’re nothing to do with fish at all !

Like little armoured aliens

The bodies of echinoids are really strange, almost like something from science-fiction. Being covered in massive spiny stilts you can walk on is weird enough, but inside their box of a shell they’re even more peculiar. They have a multi-purpose organ called the water vascular system. It’s a central bag of fluid connected to five lobes which lead to many tiny tubes coming out through pores in the shell. These are its tube-feet. It can move them around by changing the pressure inside the bag. They’re very handy for dragging itself along the sea floor, sensing the surroundings, and for getting food to its mouth. Some burrowing echinoids can even stick a tube foot up above the sand to get oxygen from the water.

Their basic body plan has proved to be very well adapted to a life of sea-bed scavenging. They move along like armoured tanks eating up whatever they can find; mostly algae, but their set of five toothed jaws can deal with a varied diet.

Cherished by the Ancients

The beautiful shells of echinoids have fascinated humans for a very long time indeed, maybe because they’re so different from other animals on the planet. Most animals have just one line of symmetry and an even number of limbs. But echinoids and their cousins the starfish can show star-like five-fold symmetry.

We know that this struck many people in the past. Ken McNamara gives the following two examples in his book “The star-crossed Stone” about the rich folklore of echinoids.

The oldest example of a collected and labelled fossil, is an echinoid with Egyptian hieroglyphics inscribed on it about 4000 years ago. It was found “in the south of the quarry of Sopdu, by the god’s father Tja-Nefer”. Sopdu was called the god of the morning star - he was a kind of border-guard god, and it’s been suggested that echinoids were important to the Egyptians in some way in their travels to the afterlife.

But human fascination with echinoids stretches back much, much further than that; long enough for the great ice sheets to have advanced and retreated across Britain four times since. About four hundred thousand years ago in what is now Kent, someone chose to make a tool from a flint containing a fossil echinoid. Most flint tools have two cutting edges, but this one may have been left unfinished on purpose. If the maker had chipped the flint to make the other edge, the fossil would have been destroyed. What is amazing is that this person was not a Homo sapiens like you or I, but either a Homo heidelbergensis or a very early Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis). Other humans were collecting fossils before members of our own species left Africa.

Trevor Bailey, Senior Curator – Palaeontology. This blog was adapted from a gallery tour I gave at the National Museum Cardiff.