Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales


Nothing lasts forever, not even in your favourite museum. The job of the conservator is to preserve the national collection but decay is all around us. Sometimes it feels like being a surgeon on an intensive care unit. Fortunately we do have a lot of science and technology to help us.

I have recently written about how we refurbished a collection store because corrosive gases being emitted from wooden cupboards caused some metal objects to show early signs of decay. In this blog I want to walk you through the science and analysis behind this project.

Iron rusts, every kid knows that. Leave a nail out in the garden and within weeks, days perhaps, you will notice it develops a lovely orange colour; given enough time, some moisture and oxygen it will eventually become flaky, friable and disintegrate. What happens when iron rusts? Iron atoms react with oxygen and water molecules, leading to oxidation of iron. The result are hydrated iron oxides, a small family of minerals commonly called rust.

Rusting iron has long been a bane of humanity. The Forth Bridge has to be repainted over and over again because it didn’t it would rust and collapse into the Firth below. The same is true of our own Menai Suspension Bridge here in Wales. Wales was the place for the invention of a rust-proofing process for household products made of iron. In the late 17th Century, Thomas Allgood of Pontypool developed a coating for iron involving the use of an oil varnish and heat. This process was called ‘japanning’, as a European imitation of Asian lacquerwork. Pontypool Museum has lots of information about these old local industries on its website so please visit there if you would like to know more.

The National Museum in Cardiff has a collection of Welsh japanned ware which was largely acquired during the early years of the National Museum. Many of these objects do not consist of iron alone: lead, tin, copper and zinc all feature in varying proportions in different parts of some of the objects. Complicated parts, such as handles and bases, were parts made from softer metals or alloys. We can find out what materials an object is made of using a completely non-invasive technology called X-ray Fluorescence (XRF). XRF directs X-rays towards an object and analyses the X-rays that bounce back. As different elements have their own, unique X-ray fluorescence which the instrument can identify and even use to quantify the elemental composition of objects without having to take a physical sample.

The problem for the museum conservator is that many of these metals, too, corrode under certain circumstances. In the case of the objects which were subject to the previous blog the corrosion of parts with a high lead component was accelerated by the high organic acid concentration within the old storage cupboards. A number of analytical tests exist for identifying and quantifying organic acids in air; we used small discs with an absorbent material that were exposed to the air in the store (both inside and outside of the cabinets) and later analysed in the lab. The results of this test showed that the concentration of acetic acid was 623µg/m3 (250ppb) inside the cabinets and 19µg/m3 (8ppb) in the store, and the concentration of formic acid 304µg/m3 (159ppb) inside the cabinets and 10µg/m3 (5ppb) in the store.

We know that both acetic and formic acids are emitted by wood, and both acids can react with various metals to produce, in some cases, some impressive corrosion products. Clearly, the concentrations of both acids were higher inside the storage furniture than in the store itself, giving us a massive clue that the problem was caused by the cabinets and not air pollution entering the store through the air conditioning system. The fresh air supply into the store, on the other hand, kept the concentration of pollutants low in the store itself.

Corrosion and decay comes in many forms, and we also use other technologies to help us identify corrosion products. Of these more in a future blog. In the meantime we are continuing to eliminate the sources of corrosive substances from the museum to help preserve the national collection.

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

Museums are outgoing institutions. Our doors are open to anyone, regardless of age, level of ability, ethnicity, and so on. We are happy to welcome everyone and will do our best to accommodate people’s needs and interests. Many museums are free because we do not want low income to be a barrier for visiting. AC-NMW’s Conservation Department has recently stepped up its outreach programme. We organise regular Open Days (the next one is on 25th October), talks, behind-the-scenes tours, schools activities etc – preservation of the museum’s objects is an important part of what the museum does and quite rightly forms part of the museum’s public offer. So much for museums.

Now for the visitors. Why do people visit museums? Because they have travelled here and are trying to get a sense of place. Because they want to spend some quality time with friends/family. Because they have a specific interest. There are many reasons, most of which indicate that visiting museums is a leisure activity that reflects what people are interested in and how they like to spend their spare time, just like reading, cycling or watching box sets on TV. Jehra Patrick summarised in her blog some of the motivational identities of museum visitors compiled by John H. Falk. She also suggested that to get people in the doors, museums should stop telling them why they should come and start asking them why they do

Last year we asked visitors whether they would like conservators to be more visible in public spaces. The feedback was a resounding and emphatic ‘YES!’ by 90% of our visitors. We heard the shout and started scheduling more of our regular maintenance work during public opening hours both at St Fagans and in the city centre. Again we checked with the visitors and, low and behold, they said they would like to see conservation in action even more often. Visitors are insatiable, one might conclude. Or are we really that good? Either way, it was all good news, the new way of working was a success, we congratulated ourselves, lots of shoulder padding going on etc.

Now a dear friend asked recently: ‘do visitors like to talk to museum staff about Conservation, or do they just like to talk to staff?’ Jaw drops. Had we not asked visitors whether they would like to speak to conservators? And had they not told us that they did? Well, yeah – but what we didn’t ask was whether it mattered that they spoke to conservators. Or anyone else.

It is certainly clear from experience (I am now straying from hard data into anecdotal evidence) that many museums visitors like to talk. When we work in the galleries or historic houses there are endless opportunities for chatting. We, as staff and volunteers, make it as obvious as possible that we are approachable and happy to talk. Many visitors use the opportunity to do just that: ask questions about our work, about the objects on display, or tell us about a moth infestation they once had in a carpet. The latter does not tend to happen randomly – pest management is one aspect of our work.

However, there is certainly a difference between being a member of museum staff (visitor perception) and being a highly skilled individual with years of experience who is fully subscribed to the museum’s policy of inclusivity, enthusiastically raring to inform visitors about the museum’s efforts in heritage preservation (conservator perception). It is interesting to note that, when working in the galleries, conservation is not the only thing we talk about. We also find ourselves giving directions, answering questions about objects on display, telling people about other cultural venues in South Wales. And – for reasons of liability – avoiding giving advice on moth infestations in domestic carpets.

Does it need a conservator to answer general enquiries? Of course not, and the museum already has additional staff for just that sort of thing. Should a conservator therefore refuse to answer such questions? Again, of course they should not – courtesy and politeness alone should be reason enough to attempt to answer any question.

Visitors cannot be expected to distinguish between different members of museum staff or volunteers. I, as a conservator, have to be aware of this and be prepared to answer any question asked of me as best I can to create experiences that fulfil visitor needs. It is also clear that visitors have expectations of their museum experience that often differ from what staff believe the offer is. The route to success for me, as member of staff, is therefore to be flexible and acknowledge the visitor’s diverse interests and needs. And to ask the right questions.

Find out more about care of collections and Preventive Conservation at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here



Our new exciting, family-friendly exhibition Wriggle has now opened and delves into the wonderful world of worms. As part of this exhibition we have put together a display of some very historic worm models made of glass. These are from a part of our collections called the ‘Blaschka glass model collection’. The models were made by the German glass-worker and naturalist Leopold Blaschka, along with his son, Rudolf, in the latter half of the 1800s’. This period was a time of great scientific discovery and new museums were opening to the public with their galleries displaying fossils, plants and animals from across the globe.

However many types of animal and plant specimens are very difficult to preserve and display, particularly soft-bodied animals, such as jellyfish, marine worms and sea anemones. The best method is to preserve in some sort of preserving fluid such as ethanol or formaldehyde but colours quickly faded and their shapes became distorted. Leopold Blaschka devised a solution to this problem by using his glass working skills to accurately model these animals out of glass. Together with his son, he went on to establish a successful business supplying glass models, mostly of marine animals, to museums worldwide during the latter half of the 19th century.

Initially the Blaschkas relied on illustrations in books as sources of reference for the glass animals, and many of the models are three dimensional representations of animals that they never saw in reality. However, in later years they increasingly based the models on their own observations of real animals, either during field trips or from live specimens in specially built aquariums in their house. This development in their naturalist skills is seen in the models as over time they became increasingly scientifically accurate.  

Amgueddfa Cymru has an extensive collection of these historic glass models representing a wide range of sea creatures such as sea slugs, sea cucumbers, marine worms, cephalopods and sea anemones. A selection of these models is on permanent display in the Marine galleries both as part of a stand-alone case, and as part of the surrounding displays. However for the Wriggle exhibition we have also put together a display case of all our worm related Blaschka glass models. Some of these models have not been on display for many years, and required delicate conservation work to enable their handling and display in the exhibition. A good example is the life series of three enlarged models of the marine worm Proceraea cornuta. All three of the models had been previously damaged in some way and careful conservation work was required to anable their safe display.

Also on display are models of commonly found species from our seashores such as the lugworm Arenicola marina and the ragworm Perinereis cultrifera.

The models of the leech Pontobdella (Hirudo) vittata and the Peacock worm Sabella pavonina are also notable in that they are still mounted on the packing card the Blaschkas’ would have originally shipped the models out on.

However personal favourites are the models of two tube living worms - the sand mason worm Lanice conchilega and the exquisite sphagetti worm Pista cretacea. Both have dense tentacle crowns which becomes an astonishing piece of craftsmanship and taxonomic accuracy when fashioned in glass!

Further information on the museums Blaschka glass model collectin can also be found online at .

In September 2016 Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales will again be participating in Open Doors, an event organised by Cadw (the Welsh Government’s historic environment service). The idea behind the event is to offer people the opportunity to visit a variety of sites important to the culture and history of Wales. The highlight of the event is the opportunity to visit places that are not normally, or are infrequently, open to the public.

The National Collections Centre, Nantgarw, is part of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, and houses thousands of interesting and important objects that are not on display. Although not normally open to the general public we have always offered access to researchers, and also to various groups and societies. Staff at the National Collections Centre have always seen the importance of opening up the site to allow visitors access to view some of these objects and to see the work that is carried out by staff on site.

We are always looking for new ways to get visitors on site, to encourage people to learn about what we do, and provide more access to the collections in store. Therefore we have decided to repeat last year’s success and get involved in Open Doors again. This year we will be open on two days as part of Open Doors, on Wednesday 7th September and Thursday 29th September 2016. There will be five tours on each day at 10.00, 11.00, 12.00, 2.00 and 3.00. Each tour will last about 45 minutes and visitors will be able to take a closer look at some of the collections held on site, and find out about the work of staff based here.

Booking is essential for these tours. Please ring us on 029 2057 3560 or 029 2057 3583 to book a place, or find out further information. You can also email us on

Further details can be found on the Cadw website, as well as details of all other places open as part of Open Doors.

We hope as many people as possible will be able to enjoy the tours and be able to see some of the amazing objects preserved by Amgueddfa Cymru for the people of Wales.

During the past two weeks our Geology galleries were closed for essential maintenance. Now they are open to the public again, much to the delight of anyone looking after dinosaur-mad 6-year olds, who, quite rightly, have been disappointed by the temporary withdrawal of some of National Museum Cardiff’s most popular displays.

So in you come for a peek of all those refreshed displays. But what’s that? Seemingly nothing has changed?? Everything still looks as it did before the ‘major refurbishment’ – so what was so major about it?

The idea of undertaking maintenance was not to change the displays – apparently our visitors are happy with the way they are – but to update technology and fix things that were broken. This is why you have to look closely to spot what we have been so busy doing. Very busy in fact; including the planning phase, which took several months, we had at least 23 people working on the gallery. It was very busy every day, with staff and contractors working around each other, from the dinosaur foot prints pavement all the way up to the ceiling (which is 12m high in this gallery).

What you won’t notice is that the fire beams were replaced to alert us early and reliably in the event of a fire. You’ll have to look closely to spot the new lights: the spot lights underneath the ceiling are now all converted to LED. You may find that the image quality of the display screens is a million times better than it was before. What you certainly should notice is that the displays are much cleaner. We also repaired damage to displays. As the saying goes: if you touch - we need to touch up. The paint work, that is. And if anyone happens to walk into a display case the specimens inside move sometimes. If we don’t spot this early enough, they can topple off their shelf and break. We used the opportunity last week to put them all back in their place, hence our plea to you: this is now not a race to see how quickly they can be knocked off their perch again, so absolutely no prize for anyone who thinks they can dislodge the displays. Our specimens – which, actually, belong not to the museum but to the Welsh public – are fragile and repairing them costs tax payers’ money, which we do our best not to waste.

There is one thing that is entirely new to the gallery, something which will be obvious immediately to said 6-year old dinosaur enthusiast (and those of any other age, too): the new Welsh dinosaur now has a permanent home as part of our dinosaur display. A life-sized artist’s impression, feathers and colours and all, is now peeking from the early Jurassic back to its Triassic cousins. It is truly magnificent and inspiring, and actually one of the first models to represent the latest research that these kinds of dinosaurs were clad in feathers. The enthusiast in myself wants to add pathos to this announcement, which is difficult to express in a blog. Hence I’ll stop myself right here and simply invite you to come and see it.

Oh, one more thing. While working in the displays in the past two weeks we found countless sweet wrappers, discarded chewing gums and bits of sandwiches and apples in various hidden corners. These kinds of things encourage pests which we don’t want in the museum any more than you would want them in your house. We have the restaurant, café and schools sandwich room where you are welcome to eat, and there are bins in the Main Hall before you enter the galleries. We would be immensely grateful if you didn’t take any food into the galleries.

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