Amgueddfa Blog: Community Engagement

We’re thrilled to announce that we’ve won the Investing in Volunteers Award for the third time.

Investing in Volunteers is a UK quality standard award in Volunteer Management.

We couldn’t have done this without the hard work and dedication of our amazing staff and volunteers. Thank you!

Having poured over our final assessment reports our highlight was to read…

“Volunteers commented that they felt that their contribution was meaningful, and that they enjoyed their roles. The majority of volunteers remarked on how welcoming the organisation is.  One volunteer said it made them feel part of a family.”  

Volunteers donate their time, skills, expertise, and enthusiasm to Amgueddfa Cymru year after year. We're a charity, and your support helps to enrich and bring a fresh perspective to our national museums.

If you would like to get involved, please visit Get Involved with Amgueddfa Cymru | National Museum Wales

@WCVACymru

#InvestinginVolunteers 

 

The Craft group of volunteers had been “coasting” for some time waiting for our next assignment from the museum. We’d made rag rugs for the houses at Rhyd y Car, we made mediaeval costumes for the children visiting Llys Llewellyn and we’d used the lavender grown in the castle gardens to make lavender bags to sell in the shops. For a few other meetings we’d been doing our own crafting projects in Gweithdy, talking to visitors, showing them how we made our various quilts, rugs, throws, and tapestries, but we were ready for a new project.

None of us had been familiar with the term Tip Girls, or the work they did in the mining industry when Noreen and Ceri from Big Pit visited us to ask for help in setting up a new temporary exhibition at the big pit Museum.

We were asked to design and make an outfit suitable for a Tip girl as would have been worn in the Welsh coal fields. Little research has been done on these girls in Wales but some records were kept of those girls working in the coal fields of Nottinghamshire and Durham. There were similarities between the two but also some distinct differences; most notably the names: Tip Girls in Wales and Pit Girls in the north of England

We obviously needed to research these Tip Girls and the period in which they were working, to find out the type of clothes they wore in order to undertake our task.

Until 1842 women and children had regularly worked underground, but after a dreadful mining disaster in Barnsley, Queen Victoria demanded an enquiry. This resulted in the Mines and Collieries Act banning women, girls, and boys under 10 from working underground.

This was a blow to many women who earned their living, or supplemented their household income from working underground, but women who needed to work adapted. They worked at loading wagons or hauling tubs up from the pithead and some became Tip Girls, sorting rocks and stones from the coal when it had been brought up from the mines below ground.

In our research we found that Tip girls developed a distinctive style of dress and different areas develop their own distinctive styles

The work was cold and wet and very dirty and the girls’ dresses catered for this.  In Wales, W. Clayton had taken photographs of these women; although they were posed and in a studio setting we still get a good idea of how they were dressed.  They wore long flannel skirts or frocks covered by leather aprons. Some wore breeches under their skirts, but this was frowned on in some mines, although it was commonplace in the mines in the north of England. They clothed their heads in hats and scarves, ensuring all of their heads were completely covered to prevent the coal dust saturating their hair.

Several members of the Craft group luckily have experience in costume design and they shared their expertise with us, helping us to design the costume.

We needed to decide what fabric we could use for the costumes, and we were lucky to be allowed the opportunity to see the museum exhibits in storage that would help us in designing the costume. We saw skirts, aprons, petticoats, stockings, socks and even boots that were all being carefully conserved by the museum.

 

We had been given a shop-window mannequin to use as the Tip Girl and were expected to dress her. However, her solid hands and feet posed a problem in that we needed to give her gloves and boots, and her elegant pose made making her resemble the Tip Girl very difficult.                                                                 

It took some time to work out that she couldn’t be used and something else had to be sorted out. There was no other mannequin available from the museum, so our resourceful team got together and manufactured one from various sources. (It does help having costume designers in the group!)

We used the original mannequin as the basis to design the clothes and even used our own members as models.  The tip girls hats seem to have been of special interest to the girls. They were all decorated quite lavishly with beads, ribbons, bows, flowers, and even birds and cherries and other fruit.  This seems to have been their gesture to glamour in the midst of the grime of the pit head.

We were getting on nicely with the manufacture of the clothes when Covid hit and we were locked down. We carried on our monthly meetings over Zoom but the Tip Girl project was side-lined for a while, while we made masks and protective clothing for the NHS. Edwina however was still working on our model and when a year later we resumed, we were nearly there with our very own Tip Girl, who we had nicknamed Brenda, for some unknown reason!

In discussion with a friend who is also doing research on the Tip Girls of the Welsh mines, I discovered that these girls were not the lowly workers they seem to be from their photos. In fact, they were quite well-paid and regarded themselves as better off than girls who had to go into service at the local “big houses”. Photographers also wanted to take their photographs and make them into postcards to sell to the public which made some of the tip girls into minor celebrities.

During lockdown we have made headscarf, skirt, chemise and socks. We’d made hands (ready for gloves) hats, bloomers and a bodice.  On returning to face-to-face volunteering, we collected what we had been working on and found we had been quite productive during lockdown.

The home-made mannequin was coming along at pace and caused some hilarity when we first assembled the legs and body as they weren’t quite compatible. Caroline, our expert in period costume, had knitted a wonderful pair of stockings that fitted the homemade legs perfectly.

 

 

The figure of the mannequin at the beginning caused much hilarity, and the arms and legs both had to be considerably altered. Having it made by different people in different places had its difficulties!


Our next meeting was at Big Pit, when we collected the disparate pieces of the costume and put them on the model. Our home-made model was not in use, and the museum was using another mannequin that was being altered to fit the brief. It was rather tall for the display case, but the staff intended shortening it discreetly.

The main reason for visiting Big Pit was to make the costume look as realistic as possible for the exhibition. They all looked newly made and pristinely clean, and we had to make them look as grubby and dirty as possible. So, after dressing up the model, we then undressed her again, and took the clothes over to the Forge where we had a good time rubbing them into the dirtiest and most filthy parts of the machinery.

 

It’s finished now, and we are waiting eagerly for the opening of the exhibition. We’ve left the clothes with the museum, along with both models, and it depends on which model best suits the display cabinet. When we visit the exhibition we will be very interested to find out more about the Tip Girls, and proud to see the small contribution we made to the exhibition on display. 

 

 

The next steps in a Professional Training Year

It’s been a little while since my last blog post and since then there has been a lot of exciting things happening! The scientific paper I have been working on that describes a new species of marine shovelhead worm (Magelonidae) with my training year supervisor Katie Mortimer-Jones and American colleague James Blake is finished and has been submitted for publication in a scientific journal. The opportunity to become a published author is not something I expected coming into this placement and I cannot believe how lucky I am to soon have a published paper while I am still an undergraduate.

There are thousands of scientific journals out there, all specialising in different areas. Ours will be going in the capstone edition of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a journal which covers systematics in biological sciences, so perfect for our paper. Every journal has its own specifications to abide by in order to be published in them. These rules cover everything from the way you cite and reference other papers, how headings and subheadings are set out, the font style and size, and how large images should be. A significant part of writing a paper that many people might not consider is ensuring you follow the specifications of the journal. It’s very easy to forget or just write in the style you always have!

Once you have checked and doubled checked your paper and have submitted  to the journal you wish to be published in, the process of peer reviewing begins. This is where your paper is given to other scientists, typically 2 or 3, that are specialists in the field. These peer-reviewers read through your paper and determine if what you have written has good, meaningful science in it and is notable enough to be published. They also act as extra proof-readers, finding mistakes you may have missed and suggesting altered phrasing to make things easier to understand.

I must admit it is a little nerve wracking to know that peer reviewers have the option to reject all your hard work if they don’t think it is good enough. However, the two reviewers have been nothing but kind and exceptionally helpful. They have both accepted our paper for publication. Having fresh sets of eyes look at your work is always better at finding mistakes than just reading it over and over again, especially if those eyes are specialists in the field that you are writing in.

As you would expect, the process of peer-reviewing takes some time. So, while we have been waiting for the reviews to come back, I have already made great progress on starting a second scientific paper based around marine shovelhead worms with my supervisor. While the story of the paper isn’t far along enough yet to talk about here, I can talk about the fantastic opportunity I had to visit the Natural History Museum, London!

We are currently investigating a potentially new European species of shovelhead worm which is similar to a UK species described by an Amgueddfa Cymru scientist and German colleagues. Most of the type specimens of the latter species are held at the Natural History Museum in London. Type material is scientifically priceless, they are the individual specimens from which a new species is first described and given a scientific name. Therefore, they are the first port of call, if we want to determine if our specimens are a new species or not.

The volume of material that the London Natural History Museum possesses of the species we are interested in is very large and we had no idea what we wanted to loan from them. So, in order to make sure we requested the most useful specimens for our paper, we travelled to London to look through all of the specimens there. We were kindly showed around the facilities by one of the museum’s curators and allowed to make use of one of the labs in order to view all of the specimens. The trip was certainly worth it. We took a lot of notes and found out some very interesting things, but most importantly we had a clear idea of the specific specimens that we wanted to borrow to take photos of and analyse closer back in Cardiff. 

Overall, I can say with confidence that the long drive was certainly more than worth it! I’m very excited to continue with this new paper and even more excited to soon be able to share the results of our first completed and published paper, watch this space…

Thank you once again to both National Museum Cardiff and Natural History Museum, London for making this trip possible.

As part of our Swansea PRIDE Celebrations this year, we'll be delving into the fascinating history of the novelist and successful industrialist, Amy Dillwyn, and presenting a performance piece about her life on 16th July. Here's Prof. Kirsti Bohata of Swansea University to tell us more about her. To find out more about this and all our Swansea PRIDE events, visit museum.wales

Amy Dillwyn was a pioneer. That was, in fact, her nickname amongst friends: ‘The Pioneer’. A writer, feminist campaigner and successful industrialist (a very rare thing for a woman in the 1890s) she made the most of her public platform to advocate for women’s rights.  Through her writing and her public persona she showed women could be resilient, adventurous and clever.  She rejected feminine norms, eschewing any interest in the restrictive frills of women’s fashion (except for casting an appreciative eye over the female form). Instead she cultivated a genderqueer identity (in her diaries she once wondered if she might be ‘half a man’) and her Trilby hat, thick boots, practical skirt and her ‘man’s cigar’ became iconic symbols of her claim to autonomy.

Portrait of Amy Dillwyn. Image courtesy of the Morris family.

Though she described herself as a ‘man of business’, and held prominent public roles including Chairman of the Hospital Board, she found her entrance to centres of economic power (like the Swansea Harbour Trust) barred by those who objected to her gender and, one suspects, those who had been on the receiving end of her plain-speaking.  She did not suffer fools. Calling out hypocrisy, inefficiency and incompetence where she found it amongst the all-male committees on which she served won her respect in some quarters but inevitably made enemies in others. She was ousted from the Hospital Board just as she had raised the money for a new convalescent hospital, a debacle  given blow by blow coverage over several issues in the press[i].

As a feminist campaigner, she wasn’t only interested in gaining the vote for herself – though she gave generously to the militant Women’s Freedom League and became president of Swansea’s branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) – she spoke up for fair pay and conditions for working-class women.  In March 1911 she shared a platform with trade unionists Mary MacArthur (1880-1921) and Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953), who later became a Labour MP, in protest against ‘sweated labour’. To an audience of striking dressmakers and the general public, Dillwyn argued that ‘Employers have no right to ... grind [poor people] down to take unfair wages or to make them accept unfair conditions of labour’ and called on Swansea to boycott the department store, Ben Evans. The campaign (which exposed illegal as well as unethical practices) was discussed in the House of Commons.

Trailblazer though she was as an industrialist and an iconoclastic woman who refused to have her behaviour (or dress) dictated by Victorian convention, Dillwyn’s most enduring legacy is her fiction and its importance to lesbian literary history.  Vigorous, feminist and bearing frequent touches of her dry humour, Dillwyn’s novels satirise the hypocrisy of her own class and she writes about social injustice from the perspective of the labouring classes.  Her abiding theme, however, is same-sex love and desire.  Sometimes this is overt: in A Burglary (1883) and Jill (1884) a young woman develops a ‘strange fascination’ and attraction to a woman just a little bit older (and richer).  Sometimes her plots are more coded, often involving disguise or cross-dressing: in The Rebecca Rioter she has a working-class man (based partly on Dillwyn herself[ii]) fall in love with an upper-class woman (while also fancying another man!) which suggests all sorts of queer, trans and bi-sexual readings.[iii] 

Olive Talbot with her father C. R. M Talbot of Margam Castle. From NMGW collection

The recurring subject or women loving women, and her interest in unrequited love between all sorts of people, can be traced to Dillwyn’s own life and love.  Aged 15, Amy Dillwyn fell in love with the 17-year old Olive Talbot (1843-1894), daughter of local millionaire, C. R. M Talbot of Margam Castle.  Amy and Olive were close friends, exchanged gifts, and stayed together in various houses and resorts. Though Amy laments that her ‘romantic… passionate… foolish’ love for Olive was met only with ‘ordinary’ affection, by 1872 Dillwyn referred to Olive in her diaries as ‘my wife’.  Olive remained the centre of Amy’s emotional and erotic world for at least the next 15 years (as detailed in her unique diaries which unfortunately stop in 1875 when Dillwyn underwent an operation) and probably much longer if the evidence of her novels (published during the 1880s) is taken into account. 

Though we don’t know exactly how their relationship progressed or ended – Olive spent the last years of her short life in London while Dillwyn was a semi-invalid in Swansea – the legacy of Dillwyn’s love and creative exploration of same-sex desire makes a remarkable contribution to queer Victorian literature. Her novels,[iv] along with her unusually frank diaries (held at Swansea University and currently being edited for publication), offer a compelling insight into queer life in nineteenth-century Wales. 

 

For more on Amy Dillwyn visit the Dictionary of Welsh Biography: https://biography.wales/article/s12-DILL-AMY-1845

Photographs of Olive Talbot are included in a collection of photographs by John Dillwyn Llewelyn, that are part of the National Museum of Wales' collection. Mark Etheridge, NMGW Curator: Industry and Transport provides an introduction to the collection here: John Dillwyn Llewelyn — Welsh Pioneer Photographer | National Museum Wales

You may access this and other photographic collections in our care here: Photographic Collections | National Museum Wales

 

The forced and thoughtless partition of India in 1947 created a unique rupture between the once coexisting communities of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus as well as the spaces (home) inhabited by them. Hence, drawing the borders of the 1947 Partition resulted in the subcontinent inheriting ‘‘a geography of trauma’’ (Jennifer Yusin 2009: The silence of partition). Notwithstanding the almost 75 years that have elapsed, the South Asian subcontinent has been struggling to deal with this event. The trauma of this forceful sundering of geographies, communities and cultures resurfaces socially and politically not only between the partitioned nations—India, Pakistan and Bangladesh-- but has led to other upheavals even within the nations themselves, in the form of wars, terrorist attacks, communal riots and the million types of microaggressions between identity groups. 

The loss of home, land and community caused by the partition has been expressed through literary and cultural works throughout the last seven decades. These expressions of trauma and recording of memory, though specific to this partition and borders, are universal in that they represent the trauma and erasure caused by the drawing of every border, whether physical or socio-cultural. Hence, one could use the phrase “every border is a geography of trauma” to all borders that need crossing in order to construct an identity that liberates one from the patriarchal, nationalist forces, and limitations that restrict individuals and communities.

Our current project, Refugee Wales, which collects the stories of Sri Lankan Tamils and Syrian refugees in Wales, too, resonates with the issues raised by the 1947 partition and both of these topics are part of my research projects for my PhD and my post-doctoral work.  When I had the opportunity to chair a session named South Asian Transcultures at the 17th ECALALS Triennial Conference (28 – 30 June 2021) I focussed specifically on two papers, Devika Karnad’s “Identity Across Borders: Tracing a South Asian 'Transcultural' in Indo-Anglian Women's Fiction and Susan Rajendran’s “Challenging Aesthetic Borders: Postcolonial Narratives and Literary Innovation in Sri-Lankan Writing”. In them I found resemblances to my previously mentioned projects.  

Among the two papers, Devika Karnad covered the issue of trauma caused by borders (between India and Pakistan), and the literary imaginary that allows the characters to think beyond borders and inhabit spaces that were once common heritage of all communities that have now been rendered inaccessible due to national and international politics that emerged from the partition.

Devika discussed two Indian English novels by two Indian female authors. They are, Difficult Daughters (1998) by Manju Kapur and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) by Arundhati Roy. Both the novels represent a ‘transcultural’ conception of identity that spans across borders in South Asia, geographically as well as socio-culturally. These literary imaginaries explore the “capacity for embodying the transitory through its ability to move fluidly between the past and the present” and between the borders created by multiple identities, at a time when identities have been rigidified through decades of ‘partition-wars-terrorism-communal riots’ discourses and rendered further impregnable through the majoritarian discourses that rule these nations today. Devika’s discussion of these two novels, while laying bare the aberrant situation of the partitioned South Asia and the socio-political turn these nations have taken, also exposes the shallowness of the politics of “identity harvesting” (Manuel Castell: The Power of Identity, 2011) by the ideologies and demagogues who rule South Asian nations today. Devika’s presentation was a critique of the politics that feeds on borders, identities and the apparatuses that sustain them.

In a similar vein to Devika’s choice of texts that focus on the transgression of borders despite the current trends of majoritarian identity politics, Susan Rajendran also examined “how early to mid-twentieth century writers in Sri-Lanka aspired to construct a Sinhala identity through artistic and literary production” that defy the majoritarian identity politics. Covering the works of two authors: Martin Wickramasinghe (1890-1976) and Ediriweera Sarachchandra (1914-1996), Susan tries to prove that these two authors used disparate literary traditions “to explore the commonalities of human experience in a manner geared to local sensibilities”. While the authors used Buddhist themes and Sinhala folklore to construct a Sinhala identity they also guarded against nativist attitudes and tried to foster a transcultural approach. 

As the Refugee Wales project progresses, we realise that in Sri Lanka, the postcolonial effort at nation building has focussed predominantly on political and ideological discourses about “preserving the ‘purity’ of Sinhala Buddhist culture from Western influence as well as perceived threats from the Muslim and Tamil minorities” as Susan has argued. This was a majoritarian ethno-religious-linguistic project where the minorities and their culture(s) were to be downgraded, then erased. This was an exercise at guarding and harvesting identities for political power by excluding other stakeholders. We know what it produced: ethnic strife that resulted in a civil war which lasted of and on for over five decades, rendering a huge population into refugees. Against such a dominant cultural and political discourse Wickramasinghe and Sarachchandra, through their art and literature, try to construct alternate responses to the vexed question of national identity and highlight the possibility of a transcultural/transnational identity. Given Sri Lanka’s fractured national identity caused by majoritarian politics and ethnic conflict, if any national reconciliation must happen, a new national imaginary is essential. This could be found especially through works such as the ones produced by Wickramasinghe and Sarachchandra. 

South Asian identity politics is as much a legacy of the colonial rule as it is the outcome of ethno-religious-linguistic ideologies’ identity harvesting power game. When the power transferred from the British to the native elites there were efforts at building multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nation states. Struggle for power and resources eventually gave way to majoritarian rule that discriminated against minorities resulting in conflicts. In Sri Lanka, the conflicts morphed into civil war. In India, Hindu majoritarianism is on full display today where discrimination and the persecution of minorities and Dalits have become systemic. It is only a matter of time before this could morph into violence and a war of secession as happened during pre-partition days. At such times focus on cultural works that can offer a counter narrative that helps people imagine transcultural/transnational identities is a valuable effort.

These two papers, as they try to offer a transcultural imaginary, also help us with insights into what line of exploration in our interview process could shed light on the area of our research in the Refugee Wales project.