Amgueddfa Blog: Community Engagement

Hi, it’s me Mike, volunteer curator with The Wallich working on a new exhibition called ‘Who Decides: Making Connections with Contemporary Art’. The old exhibition that was in the gallery has come down, it’s totally empty now.

 

The last exhibition has all been taken out and the gallery is eerily empty

So we are going to start this new exhibition; with new art, photos and films that you won’t have seen before. You can see some of my favourite pieces. I really hope you enjoy this new exhibition.

We've been busy choosing work for the new exhibition

 ‘Who Decides: Making Connections with Contemporary Art’ opens on October 26th 2017. More information here and here

Throughout 2017 the Museum has been celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Oakdale Workmen’s Institute with a variety of projects, all aimed at bringing the building alive again. One of these projects has involved cataloguing the books housed in the Institute’s Library.

 

When the building opened in 1917, the Circulating Library operated out of the Book Room (which is now the ladies lavatories), it wasn’t until 1932 that it was relocated into the current room, due to outgrowing its space.

 

The Book Committee was responsible for choosing and purchasing the books, and they purchased a wide variety of different subjects. There is a note in the Committee Minutes that in 1918 a book of “questionable character” was to be burned, but not before the Committee had been allowed to read it, if they so desired!

 

The rules for using the Library allowed for one book per member for 14 days, although in 1928 that was increased to two, so as to allow members to choose a book for their wives. And, in 1933 they decided to set up a children’s section in the Library.

 

The Library was well used, the minutes record the poor state of repair of the book stock due to overuse, at one point 300 to 500 books were being loaned each month. However, the Library was closed and the books dispersed when a branch of the County Library opened in 1967.

 

The Institute then closed entirely in 1987, before being relocated to St Fagans, where it was rebuilt and reopened to the public in 1995. At this time many other Workmen’s Institutes donated items from their buildings, and now the Library holds a mix of books from across many of those areas.

 

A keen group of volunteers came together to in May 2017, to start working on writing out book record cards. These would then be housed alphabetically in wooden drawers, allowing visitors to browse through the contents of the library shelves, much as original users of the Institute’s Library would have done.

 

As we copied out the details of each book, one by one, we had the opportunity to discuss the wide range of material available to the Institute’s members. The collection included technical manuals, classic works, poetry, sermons and bible stories, mysteries, thrillers and adventure stories, and political works.

 

The mystery and adventure novels certainly seemed the most popular, judging by the amount of date stamps in the front. However, probably the really popular books didn’t survive, as the wear and tear on them would have been the greatest.

 

We found many books in the library with the distinctive red covers of the Left Book Club, a publishing group founded by Victor Gollancz in 1936, with the aim to “help in the struggle for world peace and against fascism”. It offered members a monthly book choice, and the Book Committee at Oakdale joined in 1937.

 

We also found a number of books which had been part of the Boots Booklovers Library, an initiative that many of us hadn’t heard of before. From 1899 till 1966 Boots ran a subscription based lending library out of their chemist branches, at one point more than 400 branches across the UK were participating in the scheme. Many of the books had a distinctive green badge, identifying them as part of the Boots Library, and were probably donated after the closure of the branches.

 

A large collection of books that came originally from the Nantymoel Workmen’s Hall, donated by a father in 1952 in remembrance of his son. They were copies of the 100 Best Books collection from Sir John Lubbock's choice of books. This was a list originally compiled in 1886, after a speech given at the Working-Men’s College in London, on the best books for self-education.

 

We admired how attractive some of the books looked, with stunning illustrations or cover designs. There were a number dating from the 1930s, published by Gwasg Aberystwyth which had very striking designs, including a copy of Y crefftwr yng Nghymru (The craftsman in Wales) by Iorwerth C. Peate, founder of St Fagans National Museum of History!

It’s usually during LGBT History Month in February that people start producing articles and events around sexual orientation and gender identity heritage. But history should not be restricted to just one month and now as Pride Cymru takes place in Cardiff, it’s a good time to consider LGBT history.

A Story on a Plate

Take for example a plate in the collections of Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales, which features an image of two women on horseback set within a landscape. It is just one in thousands of blue and white transfer printed wares so popular in the 19th century and beyond. However this picture is intriguing.

Plate, Glamorgan Pottery, c. 1813-1839

It is called “Ladies of Llangollen” inspired by the story of two women, Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby.

When Eleanor and Sarah developed a passion for each other in their native Ireland their families, alarmed by this same-sex attraction, tried to ban them from seeing each other. However, determined to be together, they made an escape in the dead of night but were quickly captured. Persistently Eleanor and Sarah fought for the right to be together until eventually they won and their families allowed them to leave.

They made their way to Wales and eventually set up home in a small cottage in Llangollen where they were to live together for over 50 years.

Growing Fame

Their fame quickly grew and were visited by and corresponded with all manner of people such as Shelley, Byron, Sir Walter Scott, the Duke of Wellington, Josiah Wedgewood and Caroline Lamb. Their deaths in 1829 and 1831, respectively, did not end the fascination with this couple and throughout the following centuries their fame has endured - making them probably the most famous lesbian couple in history.

During their lifetimes, the Ladies were adamant they wanted no portraits done.

However when Lady Parker visited in 1829 she got her mother to distract Eleanor and Sarah whilst she made quick sketches of their faces under the table. Eleanor was now quite blind so Lady Parker was able to sketch her full face whilst Sarah is in profile. After the couple’s deaths she worked the faces up into full body poses set within their library and sold copies of the picture to raise money for charity.

Portrait of Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, worked from a clandestine sketch made at their Llangollen home. (c) Norena Shopland
Portrait of Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, worked from a clandestine sketch made at their Llangollen home.

A Stolen Portrait

Around 1830 James Henry Lynch pirated the picture and produced what was to become the most enduring image of Eleanor and Sarah. It was mass produced and featured on a large range of tourist souvenirs, postcards and the covers of many books.

The 'Lynch' portrait of Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, pirated from the earlier 'Library' portrait and distributed on a mass scale. (c) Norena Shopland
The 'Lynch' portrait of Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, pirated from the earlier 'Library' portrait and distributed on a mass scale.

The picture Lynch produced was of the two women standing outside dressed in riding habits which both women were known to favour. And it appears at the tail end of a period of public fascination with Eleanor and Sarah’s lives.

The story of the Ladies had reached a wide audience by the late 18th-early 19th century and numerous accounts of their lives were being produced. Even William Wordsworth wrote a poem in 1824 after visiting them. Therefore interest was high when the pottery designs started appearing.

Glamorgan Pottery and the History of the 'Llangollen' plate

The first design shows the women on horseback talking to a man carrying a scythe over his shoulder with some cattle, the town of Llangollen, the River Dee and a highly imaginative Castell Dinas Bran in the background.

'Ladies of Llangollen' blue pattern plate marked with 'BBI' stamp

The earliest date for the design is via a base stamp ‘BB&I’. This refers to Baker, Bevin and Irwin of Glamorgan Pottery and was used c. 1815-25. It went on to become one of Glamorgan Pottery’s most famous pieces and means that the plate was produced during the lifetime of both Eleanor and Sarah. The two women, both avid diary keepers, made no comment so we don’t know if they knew of the plates or if they approved of being fictionalised.

Glamorgan pottery was then taken over by Swansea businessman Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn in 1838 and he continued to produce the design using the Glamorgan, Swansea and Cambrian stamps until around 1840. However it is likely that he was already using the same design at the Cambrian Pottery from around 1825, as there was rivalry between the two potteries and they did use some of the same designs.[1]

The fascinating link here is that the most famous member of Lewis’ family was Amy Dillwyn. Amy, a business woman, ran her father’s spelter works after his death, was also a well-known novelist.

She too was in a same sex relationship. It would be nice to have a flight of fancy and think that Amy, having seen the Glamorgan plate, had some influence in getting her father to produce it at the Cambrian Pottery but there is no evidence of her involvement.

Detail of blue plate showing an illustration of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler © Norena Shopland
Detail of blue plate showing an illustration of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler © Norena Shopland

Detail of blue plate showing an illustration of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler © Norena Shopland
Detail of blue plate showing an illustration of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler © Norena Shopland

It is not clear whether it was the Glamorgan pottery design which was produced first or another by William Adams of Stoke. This design, also called Ladies of Llangollen, features the two women, again in riding habits, standing looking down at a man who appears to be showing them a large fish. Behind them stand their horses whilst in the distance there are two men in a boat, one punting along, a bridge and on the bank a rustic cottage. The mountain Cadair Berwyn is in the centre.

Adams had produced a pottery series called ‘Native’ in the 1820s and this design was part of that series. Not long after F. and R. Pratt of Fenton, Staffordshire acquired the plates from Adams and reproduced the series between 1880 and 1920 renaming it ‘Pratt’s Native Scenery.’ When Cauldon took over Pratt’s in the 1920s they continued using the design up to c1930s.

There continues to be enormous interest in Eleanor and Sarah - particularly when discussing how we define lesbian relationships from the past. However despite the mass of interest these fictionalised blue and white images are hardly ever mentioned. But at least we know that Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales have this piece in their LGBT collection.

 

NORENA SHOPLAND

Author of Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales to be published by Seren Books, 17th October 2017

Website: http://www.rainbowdragon.org

 

[1] Thanks to Andrew Renton, Keeper of Art,  Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales for clarifying this

 

I am an artist, studying for an MA degree in contemporary design craft, specifically the sculptural potential of prosthetic limbs. My visit to the Mollusca collection occurred after I came across a blog about the interior structure of shells on the museum website, and I made the connection between the interior structure of shells and how 3-D printers work and correct form. On the blog there was a contact number for the Curator of Mollusca, so I contacted Harriet Wood, not knowing what to expect in response.

Photograph of cross-section of 3D printed cube, showing internal supporting structure
Internal structure of 3D printed object © Matthew Day 2017

Looking inside shells - shell sections

When I explained my work on prosthetics to Harriet, and the connections with the interior structure of shells and 3-D printing she seemed very excited and invited me to come down, and also offered to introduce me to the person who runs a photography lab who uses 3-D printing and scanning for the museum.

Going Behind the Scenes

I could not have imagined it could have gone as well as it did. I met Harriet at the information desk of the museum and we then headed behind-the-scenes, where the collection is kept. Walking around the museum to get out back was really nice and modern. It reminded me of an academic journal I read not long before my visit, from the International Journal of the Inclusive Museum: ‘How Digital Artist Engagement Can Function as an Open Innovation Model to Facilitate Audience Encounters with Museum Collections’ in the  by Sarah Younan and Haitham Eid. 

photo showing a large cabinet full of specimen drawers
Some of the archives at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

Behind the scenes at the museum was quite a special environment - generally the general public are not allowed access unless arranged. It was a great privilege to be walking through rooms and rooms full of shells that people over the years have discovered and appreciated for their beauty. What was really fascinating was how the shells had been cut so perfectly. The cut shells looked almost as if this was their natural state – the way they were cut blended in so well with the form of the shell. This is what I wanted to see.

Black and white photograph showing a selection of shell sections
Shell sections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

I was speechless when I saw these collections of shells – especially seeing that part we’re not supposed to see. It was really exciting to see interior structure revealed by the cut, as it added a whole new value to the shells. They really reminded me of work by the the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, whose work I really admire.

black and white photograph showing a single conical shell, cut to show its internal spiral structure
© Matthew Day 2017

We see shells all the time on beaches and they just fascinate me, especially the broken ones which reveal part of the interior. It’s a very imperfect break, very different to the quality of the shell which has been sliced purposely to reveal what is inside. A natural object sculpted by man: I feel that this is what I am drawn to.

3D Scanning: Art and Science

Before examining the shells myself, Harriet offered to take me down to see Jim Turner, where we ended up spending most of my visit because what he did was just very interesting. Jim works in a lab which uses a photography process called “z-Stacking” (or extended depth of field – EDF) which is used extensively in macro photography and photo microscopy.

Jim is also creating an archive of 3D scanned objects for the museum website, where people can interact with scanned objects using VR headsets - bringing a whole new experience to the museum.

I understood what he was doing immediately from my own work. He explained the process and I understood the technicalities. It was a real pleasure to speak to someone who is using 3-D scanning in a different way to me. Jim is using 3D scanning in a way that was described within academic texts I had read - and even though he wasn’t doing anything creative with shells, he was still putting the objects into a context where people could interact with them using digital technology such as VR headsets, and on the web via sketchfab.

'Like being on a beach...'

When we got back to the Mollusca Collection I was able to take my own time and was under no pressure - so I got to have a good look and explored the shells. It was like being on a beach spending hours of exploring all wonderful natural objects.

black and white photograph showing a single conical shell, cut to show its internal spiral structure
© Matthew Day 2017

This visit had an amazing impact on my MA project - and I cannot thank Harriet and Jim enough for their time. This visit also gave me the confidence to approach other museums, such as Worcester Medical Museum, where I worked with a prosthetic socket from their collection. I 3D scanned the socket and, with the inspiration from Harriet’s collection of Mollusca, I created a selection of Sculptural Prosthetic sockets, drawing inspiration from the internal structures of shells, and illustrating sections of the shells that I was most drawn to. 

'A sculpture in its own right': my collection of sculptural prosthetics

Side by side photographs showing a sculptural prosthetic sock and a shell section. The prosthetic is shaped to emulate the internal structure of the shell.
Prototype conceptual prosthetic sock sculpture inspired by National Museum Cardiff's Mollusca collection © Matthew Day 2017

photo showing a black sculptural prosthetic socket with a yellow decoration
Prototype prosthetic sock sculpture inspired by National Museum Cardiff's Mollusca collection © Matthew Day 2017
photo showing a grey sculptural prosthetic socket with a yellow decoration
3D printed, fabric dyed prosthetic sculptural socket, inspired by the Mollusca collections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

photograph showing prosthetic socket with a large yellow decoration shaped like a round shell
3D printed, fabric dyed prosthetic sculptural socket, inspired by the Mollusca collections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

 

What’s next?

My MA is now reaching a climax, and I am starting the final major project module after the summer, which I am very excited about.

For the final part of my studies, I want to take all that I have explored and incorporated into my research to date, and use it to create a concept prosthetic limb which would be wearable, but also a sculpture in its own right – work which is now on track.

3D illustration of a design for a prosthetic leg, with decorations inspired by the internal structure of shells
Concept design of prosthetic sculptural leg, inspired by the Mollusca collections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

I aim to create a really spectacular prosthetic limb using 3D printing, further incorporating the shell-inspired aesthetics you see in this blog.

More of my work can be found on my website: Matthew Day Sculpture

 

This is one of our fabulous, weird and wonderful stores at St Fagans National Museum of History. It’s chockablock full of objects. We’re still collecting new things, but we have to be very selective in what we take in. We just don’t have the space!

Store at St Fagans National Museum of History

You can come across all sorts of things in a social history store like this one, from grandfather clocks to prosthetic limbs.

When a colleague of mine first went into this store and was told to ‘mind the mantrap’ she thought it was a joke. It turns out there really was a mantrap lurking at the end of a dark corridor!

For a long time I’ve known that the majority of museum collections are hidden away in storage, that what you see in galleries is only a small portion, but I had no idea to what extent until I started working here.

Of the 5 million objects we have across seven museums ranging from vintage motorcars, moon rock, world famous paintings, Iron Age slave chains, to a public urinal. How many objects are on display?

Only 0.2% of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales’ collections are on display.

So if there is a specific object you want to see at any of our museums, check that it’s on display first, and if it’s not, you can always make an appointment to view it. Thanks to players of People’s Postcode Lottery, we have had funding so we can enhance records and add images for you to view in Collections Online which will be up and running in the autumn. Keep an eye out for behind the scenes store tours with the curators and conservators who look after our collections, these can be really enlightening!

We’re looking after the collections, on your behalf. We hope you enjoy exploring them as much as we do.

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