Amgueddfa Blog: Collections & Research

Cultural heritage collections need a friendly home. 'Friendly' means: a building that protects the collection from the elements – wind, sun and rain. Conservators worry a lot - and rightly so - about pigments fading when they are exposed to light, about stuffed animals being eaten by insect pests, about war time medals corroding because of the presence of air pollutants. But it’s no good having a fantastic pest management system if the roof leaks. Getting the basics right makes the job of the conservator an awful lot easier and is better for the collection.

Like many museums up and down the country, National Museum Cardiff is housed in a historic building. The museum contains 30 public galleries and 50 collection stores which accommodate almost 3 million objects. This is only part of the national heritage collection of Wales and arguable something we want to protect for the benefit of current and future generations.

But being in a historic building, as beautiful as it is, has its challenges. Much of the building infrastructure is aging and needs modernising. Our roof needs some tlc. Our air conditioning systems are so old, there is nobody left in the museum who was around when they were first installed. And the electrics in parts of the building are not far from receiving a birthday telegram from Her Majesty the Queen.

All of those issues are a problem not just for visitors and staff, but also for the collections. Therefore, we have started modernising our museum building. In the past few years we already had parts of our roof replaced. Less publicly visible was the recent replacement of the electrical infrastructure in the west wing. We are now in the process of undertaking much more work to improve the building.

Some of this work will happen behind closed doors: replacement of our chillers and humidifiers with new, modern and efficient technology, making the museum leaner and greener. Other work will be more obvious to our visitors, including works to the roof of our south wing. Various works will require the temporary closure of some of our public galleries – please bear with us during this time, we are keeping the rest of the museum open and, once the works are completed, all galleries will be accessible again.

One difficulty remains: once all the works are completed the museum will look like nothing ever happened – we do not have a brand new building to show off for all our efforts. BUT the building will feel and operate differently. It will form a more reliable envelope around our collections. It will require less maintenance, saving us money and staff time. It will be more energy efficient and environmentally friendly, reducing our energy bills and forming a substantial contribution towards lowering our greenhouse gas emissions.

During this time of potential disruptions please bear in mind the end product, which will include a better museum experience for visitors today (well, next year) and in the future. And a building that continues to help us look after Wales’ national collection.

Should you have any questions at all about our refurbishment programme in relation to the collections, please do get in touch. We will be happy to assist in any way we can.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter.

We are busy preparing our Natural History #MuseumAdvent calendar and we couldn't resist sharing with you a sneak preview! This year the backdrop for the calendar is a snowy National Museum Cardiff. Each of our 24 natural science curators and scientists have selected one of their favourite objects from the collections to showcase each day. The advent calendar will feature on the @CardiffCurator Twitter account, so why not tune in each day and see what natural science specimen or object is behind each door. The calendar will feature plants, insects, sea worms, shells, fossils, minerals, seaweed and diatoms to name but a few. Once we have opened all of the doors, we will reveal the curators behind the favourite objects.

Lava medallions and coins in lava from Mount Vesuvius, Italy

The National Museum Wales Petrology (Rock) collection comprises 35,000 specimens, with many interesting rock samples from across Wales and the wider World. In the drawers of the Italian collection, alongside the pumice, volcanic ash and obsidian are these curious rocks.

NMW GR.206 - Lava medallion with stamp of unknown figurehead, Vesuvius, 1871. (front)

They are called lava medallions or tablets, and along with coins embedded in lava they were probably first produced in the mid-18th Century when the ‘Grand Tour’ become fasionable among the wealthy elite of Europe.  Taking in European cities like Paris, Rome, Venice, Florence and Naples, the ‘students’ would travel with a tutor on a Grand Tour to learn about languages, geography, culture, art and architecture. When passing through Naples, the volcano of Mount Vesuvius (Vesuvio) became a must see stop on the tour. Forget postcards, fridge magnets and selfies, the take home souvenir of the day was the lava medallion!

People have long been fascinated by destructive power of Mount Vesuvius, the volcano had lain dormant for centuries before the famous eruption in 79 A.D. when the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed. Over the last two thousand years, the volcano has erupted many times. Between eruptions, Vesuvius can lie almost dormant for long periods of time before erupting violently once again. Volcanoes the world over that erupt in this explosive style after long periods of dormancy are known as Vesuvian eruption volcanoes.

To make a lava medallion, molten lava would have been retrieved (by some very brave individual with a long stick!) from a recent lava flow or lava close enough to the surface that was accessible and still hot enough to be malleable. It was then moulded, pressed with a stamp, or embedded with a coin, cooled in a bucket of water and sold to a passing grand tourist.

The French Revolution in 1789 marked then end of Grand Tours as they were known, but with the advent of the railways in the early 19th Century and the beginnings of mass tourism, these distinct souvenirs once again became popular take-home keepsakes, and they were produced in their thousands.

Over the years many of these medallions and lava coins have found their way into museum collections across the world. They often depict kings, Roman Emperors, famous scientists or events. All of the medallions and coins in the AC NMW collection date from the 19th Century, and originate from Mount Vesuvius, but examples in other collections have originated from Mount Etna, Sicily.

If you would like to know more about lava medallions, please contact Andrew Haycock via:

https://museum.wales/staff/665/Andrew-Haycock/


NMW GR.206 – Lava medallion with stamp detailing date and place of collection, Vesuvius, 1871. (back)

NMW 15.133.GR.1 - Vesuvius, 1834. ‘note with specimen 'medallion struck in lava when it was in a hot and pasty condition’ (front)

NMW 15.133.GR.1 - Vesuvius, 1834. Note with specimen 'medallion struck in lava when it was in a hot and pasty condition’.

NMW 15.277.GR.6 – Lava with embedded coin (Victor Emmanuel II), Vesuvius. (1860s?)

NMW 15.277.GR.3 – Stamped tablet with [S]ALVATOR MADONNA one side and 1844 on other. (front)

NMW 15.277.GR.3 – Stamped tablet with [S]ALVATOR MADONNA one side and 1844 on other. (back)

NMW 24.113.GR.6 – Lava with image of Galileo, Vesuvius, 1879. (front)

NMW 24.113.GR.6 – Lava with image of Galileo, Vesuvius, 1879. (back)

NMW 15.133.GR3 – Lava with embedded coin (corroded), Vesuvius.



 

"If you asked me what a magelonid was 18 months ago, I would have looked at you with a somewhat muddled expression. Let me tell you, a lot has changed since then. Roll onto the present day, after a year at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales for my Professional Training Year (as part of my Zoology degree at Cardiff University), I could talk for as long as you are willing to listen about this fascinating family of marine bristle worms, commonly known as the shovel-head worms (Annelida: Magelonidae)."

            When my application was first approved from the Natural Sciences Department at the museum, I didn’t know what to expect. I had always loved anything marine and knew from the start this is the area I wanted to build a career around. This was a very broad declaration and beyond this, I was rather diffident in what I wanted to pursue. Therefore, my number one priority was to keep an open mind and make the most of everything the experience would offer. This view shaped a year filled with opportunities, that has not only been indispensable in developing my scientific skills in both hands on research and writing, but also in giving me a direction I am interested in for the future. 

            The majority of the placement involved both behavioural and taxonomic studies on European magelonid species, through the practicing of methods such as time-lapse photography, live observation, scanning electron microscopy, high definition photography using a macroscope, and taxonomic drawings using a camera lucida attached to a microscope. As a result of this work, some very interesting findings were highlighted for the Magelonidae, with important implications for furthering our understanding of these enigmatic animals. Perhaps the most fascinating arose through extensive time-lapse photography and observing animals in aquaria within the marine laboratory, in which an un-described behaviour emerged in the tube dwelling species Magelona alleni. Later termed as ‘sand expulsion’, this behaviour was a highly conspicuous method of defecation where M. alleni would turn around in a burrow network, raise its posterior region into the water column and excrete sand around the tank. Just knowing I was most likely the first person to ever witness this was a very rewarding experience in itself! To understand why this novel behaviour was exhibited, the posterior morphology of M. alleni was compared to additional European species. These findings have led onto my first publication in a peer-reviewed journal, of which two more papers and an article are due to follow as a result of working closely with my supervisor throughout the year.

I also got the opportunity to participate in tasks that are essential to the upkeep of the museum, such as curation, specimen fixation and preservation, along with invertebrate tank maintenance. Additionally, I participated in sampling trips, including a visit to Berwick-upon-Tweed and outreach events, such as ‘After Dark at the Museum’, which saw over 2,000 visitors, and the RHS show Cardiff.   

            Overall, the museum is a very friendly, intellectual and dynamic environment that has more to offer than perhaps meets the eye. This is why anyone who wants to study the small, whacky and wonderful world of marine invertebrates should not pass up an opportunity to undertake a placement here. Spend any prolonged amount of time amongst the hundreds of thousands of specimens kept in the fluid store, and I guarantee you will not be able to escape a visceral appreciation of the natural history of our world. With this comes a feeling of preservation for all we have and a reinforcement of why museums are such a crucial component of our society today, something that is too easily forgotten. 

Read more about Kim's journey through her PTY Placement at National Museum Cardiff:

https://museum.wales/blog/2017-08-04/A-new-world-of-worms---beginning-a-Professional-Training-Year-at-the-museum/

https://museum.wales/blog/2017-11-15/A-tail-of-a-PTY-student/

https://museum.wales/blog/2018-02-07/The-early-bird-catches-the-worm/

 

 

Over the past few months the museum has been working closely with colleagues at the beautiful Oriel y Parc gallery in St Davids to bring together an exhibition celebrating Wales ‘Year of the Sea’ called ‘Coast’.

The exhibition fuses artworks and natural science specimens specially selected by the Oriel y Parc team from Amgueddfa Cymru’s collections, and displays these alongside some of the recent museum activisim work of Amgueddfa Cymru’s 'Youth Forum Group' highlighting the issues of plastic pollution.

The multidisciplinary nature of the display explores how the sea has inspired artists for centuries, highlights the biodiversity of the Pembrokeshire coast, and how plastic now impacts on the environment and our everyday life.

Centre piece to the art works is Jan van de Cappelle’s masterpiece ‘A Calm’, surrounded by sea and coast inspired paintings from a selection of other artists including Cedric Morris and John Kyffin Williams. Amongst these works are specimens from the natural science collections capturing the richness of Pembrokeshire's wildlife, including the skeleton of a leatherback turtle found dead on Skomer Island in 1988.

The turtle had in the past been on display at the visitor centre on Skomer, but was removed a number of years back when the buildings on the Island underwent redevelopment. In need of some repairs and cleaning, the specimen became an excellent project for one of our conservation student placements at the museum, Owen Lazzari. The end result has enabled us to bring the specimen back to Pembrokeshire to form one of the centrepieces of the exhibition.

Other highlights from the natural science collections include one of our historic Blaschka glass models dating from the late 1800s, and a Goose barnacle covered builder's helmet found off the Welsh Coast.

Further information can be found on Oriel y Parc's website: https://www.pembrokeshirecoast.wales