Amgueddfa Blog: Community Engagement

If you ask the right questions and listen carefully, there is no one who does not have an interesting story to tell. I grew up on stories of my mother’s younger years and the home front in World War Two. Family friends would come every weekend to Saturday tea or Sunday lunch and conversation would often revolve around memories of nursing during the war, bringing alive everyday life in ways history books seldom do. 

Workshop at Butetown History & Arts Centre
Decades later when I was involved in an oral history project on Cardiff Docklands in World War Two, I heard very different stories of life during the war from people who grew up and lived in Tiger Bay. These stories remain important in retelling the history of Wales and the UK in a more inclusive way. They illuminate the positive contributions made by minorities, despite day-to-day and institutional racism. Similar issues came to the fore again in the UK last year with the Windrush scandal and they are currently being raised by Covid19.

Life stories are an engaging and accessible way of getting to know more about the many people in Wales today who have settled here after escaping war and violence in their home countries. Telling one’s story can be both difficult and life affirming. Listening to refugee stories cuts through the empathy fatigue and indifference produced by 24-hour news. Individual stories tell us how it feels to become a refugee, to lose one’s home and the life one has known, to have to deal with a traumatic past and an uncertain future. They throw light on the many obstacles to creating a new life in an unfamiliar environment. They also reveal the positive contributions that refugees make to Wales today and how we can help smooth the process of settling in, both via social policy and in everyday life. Our partnership with the National Museum means that these stories will become a permanent part of the history of contemporary Wales. 

Knowing more about the lives of others is enriching and important in shaping the sort of society in which we wish to live. My hopes for this project are that it will attract community support and help improve current and future refugee experience. It aims to give participants a sense of agency and ownership and to prove a positive experience for all involved.

In 2016 I received a phone call from Nichola Thomas. She had a son, Rhys, who would love to volunteer at the museum. He was seventeen and in college part-time and he was autistic.

We decided to meet Rhys and Nichola to find out what his interests were and how he could help out in the museum.

Rhys was quite shy at first and didn’t say much, but took everything in. We worked out a plan that he could come for two hours every Wednesday from eleven o’clock until one o’clock. Rhys would help me with a ‘handling object’ table and we would encourage visitors to hold objects from the 1950s, 60s and 70s and talk about their memories or just learn about the objects. Things like ‘Green Shield Stamps’, cigarette coupons, old electrical items and old tools.

Now, most of the staff at the museum had little or no understanding of autism. One lady, Suzanne, has an autistic son and she could explain things like how to interact with Rhys. We all felt we should be better informed, so all the staff were offered ‘autism awareness’ training. I think everybody signed up.

The training really opened our eyes to the world of autism. One huge point that came out of the training was that many organisations have a ‘chill-out’ space. This is for anyone who is feeling anxious or stressed or just needs to get away from the hustle and bustle. We decided we needed something like this at the museum.

National Waterfront Museum Volunteer Rhys Thomas in one of the Museum's electric vehicle exhibits 

By now Rhys had really started to enjoy his time at ‘work’. Everybody noticed a real transformation as he became more outgoing and less shy and regularly starting conversations with complete strangers. We asked Rhys to help us with the design of the ‘Chill-out’ Room. He came into his own, making great recommendations and also being our spokesperson about what we were trying to achieve. He even made a number of radio appearances on the Wynne Evans show.

Rhys became such a favourite on the show that he invited  Wynne to come and officially open our ‘Chill-out’ room.

Rhys is full-time in college now so can only volunteer at the museum during holidays. We always love to see him and he really adds something to our team. Our ‘chill-out’ room is a total success and is used daily.

In July 2108 the first Intergenerational Group was held at Big Pit. The aim of the group is to bring old and young together, to break down the barriers which exist between generations, whilst also supporting members of the community who may be experiencing or living with dementia.

Each monthly group has a different theme, and people from all ages come together to share their experiences and memories, to sometimes learn something new, to visit a new place or just for a cup of tea and a natter.

We have a number of old and young volunteers, including some who are living with dementia.

The couple you see here are Gavin and Kim. Gavin is a younger person with dementia who has recently come on board as an operational volunteer for the group, and who has also led group art activities.

 From the early sessions, a noticeable improvement in people’s confidence has been observed, and willingness to share skills, ideas and information has grown week upon week. Many friendships which span generations have been made, with people arranging to take part in social activity outside group sessions.

If you would like to join the group as a volunteer, or would like more information about the group, please contact the Volunteering Department

In partnership with Blaenavon Town Council, supported by Blaenavon Hwb Youth Setting and Western Power Distribution.

Here are some quotes and feedback from members and their family:

“[My Mother] has been telling me all about it and I got the impression she had a great afternoon…she was really pleased with her drawings depicting the pit…she’s done more drawing the last couple of days than I’ve seen her do for years! She loves meeting up with people she knows too for a good chat”

Feedback from the daughter of a participant of the Blaenavon Intergenerational Group. The lady has recently suffered a stroke which has affected her eyesight so she has lost some of her independence.

“I always love coming to the group. You always make us feel special, and being with the children is lovely. They give you a different outlook. You can feel lonely in the home, even with lots of people around you. I can’t thank you all enough”

Resident of care home. Regular attendee of the Blaenavon Intergenerational Group.

“Codi i’r Wyneb - Brought to the Surface” is a project on freshwater snails led by the Museum’s Department of Natural Sciences, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. For more information on the project I recommend reading; Shells at the Surface of “Brought to the Surface” (January, 2019) and “Brought to the Surface” Now in Full Flow (June, 2019). 

Ben and I have been busy since the last blog entry in June 2019! We took our project on tour, visiting a variety of different public events, training workshops and conferences. As a result, we have had the pleasure of engaging with a bunch of interesting people. 1,263 people to be exact! This has included professional consultants, scientific researchers, amateur naturalists, keen gardeners and more! We would like to thank you all so much! Your commentary and feedback has supported us on our way to producing an identification guide for environmentalists of all ages and backgrounds.

Snail Safari was one of our favourite public events of the last year. The bilingual educational workshop was designed for children aged 8-11 and was held at St Fagans National Museum of History. The purpose of the event, which consisted of two separate sessions, was to simulate and promote the type of work that we, as taxonomists, carry out at the museum.

For the introductory session we led the group on a safari to survey the ponds and lakes in the gardens at St Fagans. With nets and buckets the children collected freshwater snails to examine back at the classroom where, many of them were given a chance to use a microscope for the first time! The Gweithdy carpentry workshop served as an excellent impromptu laboratory with plenty of space for the group to lay out trays of pond water for sifting. The session ended with a lively competition to find the biggest and/or fastest snail. The enthusiasm displayed by the group impressed us so much, that we decided to kick it up a notch for the second session.

Inspired by Guess Who, Guess Whorl is a competitive card game in which players take turns asking questions about identifying features. The goal is to deduce the identity of a mystery freshwater snail species using the process of elimination, with questions such as, “Does your snail have a pointy shell?” or “Does the shell have stripes?”. The indoor Snail Safari session consisted of an exciting tournament to award the best taxonomist and Guess Whorl player in the group. Driven by the competitive element, the children became fascinated by our card game and the variety of different snail shells illustrated on the cards. With 17 species to guess from and 9 different identifying features, Guess Whorl kept us occupied for an entire afternoon!

By the end of the session, the group had learned about the differences between types of British pond snails and how to deduce and describe those differences in the same way as a taxonomist might. With some nets and buckets, a few laminated cards, and a bit of ‘thinking outside the box’ we delivered our favourite workshop yet.

Guess Whorl can now be used as a useful teaching tool for a variety of future public engagement events. With some adjustments, we think that the card game could be used for training purposes in identification courses for professionals as well as beginners!

We would like to thank Ian Daniel from St Fagans for his enthusiastic approach and brilliant improvisational skills. Thank you to the children from Ysgol Plasmawr, Ysgol Bro Edern, Ysgol Glantaf, and year 7,8 and 9 ladder group and platform group from Cardiff West Community High School, for taking part in our Snail Safari.

At this moment in time, museums across the world are launching initiatives to collect objects and personal stories relating to COVID-19.

This pandemic has raised a raft of questions for all museums, especially in relation to how they collect the current crisis in meaningful, ethical and sensitive ways. At Amgueddfa Cymru, we routinely collect the here and now (think Brexit, the Women's March etc.), but the enormity of this pandemic – its impact on individuals and communities across Wales – is unlike any other national event we have documented in recent decades.

Today, we launched a digital questionnaire as a first step towards creating a national COVID-19 collection at Amgueddfa Cymru, to be archived at St Fagans National Museum of History. With your help, through the questionnaire, we hope to collect personal stories (written testimony, photographs and films) from across the country to create a comprehensive picture of life in Wales during the lockdown and beyond. We will also use the responses to identify and collect objects which could, in the future, represent the 3D memory of COVID-19 in Wales.

By doing this, we are revisiting a collecting methodology which is rooted in the Museum’s history, and is indicative of the early collecting practices of Dr Iorwerth Peate – the first curator of St Fagans. In December 1937, Dr Peate, who at the time was based at the National Museum of Wales in Cathays Park, published a questionnaire which was sent to 493 respondents across Wales. Launched in a decade largely defined by economic hardship and unemployment, it asked participants to provide information about the domestic, public and cultural life of their local area. Although developed by Iorwerth Peate, the questionnaire’s introduction was penned by the Museum’s Director, Cyril Fox:

This questionnaire has been prepared in the hope that persons in each parish in Wales will study the life of that parish on the lines indicated therein… The pamphlet indicates the direction in which the Welsh public can help in the work of this Department and its National Museum… Photographs and drawings will be gladly received… It is hoped, moreover, that correspondents, once they have established contact, will keep in constant touch with the Museum so that the Department is kept well-informed of any developments which are relevant to its work.

In preparing the questionnaire, the Museum was effectively asking the people taking part to become regular informants, to use their community knowledge to assist with developing a collection which would later form the basis for the creation of the Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagans in 1948. 

Questionnaires and blank ‘answer books’ requesting information on a range of subject areas were in regular use by the Museum up until the 1980s, and today the responses received (almost 800 in total) form a significant part of the archive collection at St Fagans.

Another collecting method pioneered by the Museum under the direction of Iorwerth Peate was the collecting of oral testimony. Following a public appeal launched on BBC radio in March 1958, St Fagans embarked on the systematic collecting of oral traditions and dialects. The funds raised allowed the Museum to buy recording equipment to undertake the work, including an EMI TR51 portable recorder, and a DC/AC converter, with two acid batteries and yards of cable, to record people in remote areas without electricity. A Land Rover was also purchased, fitted-out with wooden units made by the Museum’s carpenter to house the recording equipment.

Today, we have over 12,000 recordings in the archive, and in recent years we have become a repository for oral histories collected by community groups and organisations across Wales – from Mencap Cymru to Merched y Wawr.

The Land Rover may be long gone, but recording people’s lived experiences is still an important part of the collecting work we do, now more than ever. We very much hope that the COVID-19 questionnaire, the first to be launched by the Museum in the digital age, will enable people experiencing the pandemic in Wales to share their own stories in their own words, and provide future generations with personal, first-hand accounts of this chapter in our history.