Amgueddfa Blog: Volunteering

My name is James and I just want to sketch out a typical day as a part of the Volunteer Book Project in St Fagans.

We’re a small group, one of many in the museum, that has been running for over a year. Our group was set up to raise funds for St Fagans’ grounds by selling second hand books.

Usually, we go into the museum once a week. Communication with one another is straightforward, using a Whatsapp group. Someone from the group will decide a day to go in, the rest of us will say yay or nay. It’s very flexible. More often or not, there are a bunch of us in at any time and over the past year have developed a good working bond and friendship with one another.

We have two locations where we sell our books in the museum, Y Gegin, the main cafe, and Gweithdy, the crafts’ cafe and we’re very excited, too, because we’ve just found out that a space in the Buttery Cafe, which will be opening soon, is going to be available to us to sell books. Also, every cafe has its own particular subject, so if you are in the museum, try and visit them all if you can.

Our job is to keep the supply of good quality books for sale on display. Our generous donations from visitors keep the volume of turn over very fast, which has brought in a high amount of collection money. So far we have raised £3,000 from the project and the money is set to be spent on arches with integral seating for the Rose Garden and also to plant some extra trees nearby.

After picking up the stacks of books from the reception area, and checking what gaps there are to fill in the cafe, we make our way over to our little store room (in Tŷ Gwyrdd), walking and chatting as we pass along the path under the trees. You’ll hear the rumbling of our crate a long way off.

Sorting through the books is always interesting because we receive quite a diverse range of subjects, from popular fiction to highly specialist topics. Whatever we pick up, we price them, discuss them, keeping a close eye on what is selling well and what isn’t. The whole process is quite stimulating. We’re pretty much in charge of the whole running of the books project. It’s nice that St Fagans shows that level of trust in its volunteers.

Once we have gathered enough books to fill the empty spaces in the shelves, we rumble on over to the cafes to get the books out on display. We like to keep a check on how well books sell. For instance, we will photograph the shelves before and after a shift and also make a little pencilled note of the month the book goes on display. This information helps us to tailor our selections as much as possible to the tastes of the many varied people who visit St Fagans. Also, a few of our members have started selling some of our rarer books on eBay, so that we can maximize the funds we collect to be spent on adding more beautiful features to the museum.

A typical day lasts around three hours. At the end we all sign out at the reception desk with a satisfying feeling that there are a fresh load of low-priced and good quality books out for sale. It’s a rewarding role and we always feel appreciated by the museum for our work. There is a sense of belonging here and it’s really opened my eyes to new things.

On 15 March we launch our new LGBTQ+ tours at National Museum Cardiff. The tours have been developed in partnership with Pride Cymru working with self-confessed Museum queerator Dan Vo and an amazing team of volunteers.

You may already have read Norena Shopland's blog about the Ladies of Llangollen, and Young Heritage Leader Jake’s post, Queer Snakes! There are so many more LGBTQ+ stories in our collection – stories that have been hidden in dusty museum closets for too long. Friends, it’s time for us to let them out!

To whet your appetite, here’s a quick glimpse at one of the works you might spot on the tour…

The Mower, by Sir William Hamo Thornycoft

The Mower is a bronze statuette on display in our Victorian Art gallery. It is about half a metre high and shows a topless young farmworker in a hat and navvy boots resting with his arm on his hip, holding a scythe. This sassy pose, known as contrapposto, was inspired by Donatello’s David - a work with its own queer story to tell.

The Mower was made by William Hamo Thornycroft, one of the most famous sculptors in Britain in the nineteenth century, and was given to the Museum in 1928 by Sir William Goscombe John. An earlier, life-size version is at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool and is said to be the first significant free-standing sculpture showing a manual labourer made in Britain.

Thornycroft became fascinated with manual labourers and the working classes after being introduced to socialist ideas by his wife, Agatha Cox. He wrote ‘Every workman’s face I meet in the street interests me, and I feel sympathy with the hard-handed toilers & not with the lazy do nothing selfish ‘upper-ten.’ In The Mower, he presents the body of a young working-class man as though it's a classical hero or god – a brave move for the time.

Queering the Mower

With the rising interest in queer theory, many art historians have drawn attention to the queer in this sculpture. In an article by Michael Hatt the work is described as homoerotic, which he describes as that ambiguous space between the homosocial and homosexual.

One of the main factors is the artist’s relationship with Edmund Gosse, a writer and critic who helped establish Thornycroft’s reputation in the art world. Gosse was married with children, but his letters to Thornycroft give us a touching insight into their relationship.

He describes times they spent together basking in the sun in meadows and swimming naked in rivers; and they are filled with love poems and giddy declarations of affection. ‘Nature, the clouds, the grass, everything takes on new freshness and brightness now I have you to share the world with,’ he wrote. Gosse was so obsessed with Thornycroft that writer Lytton Strachey famously joked he wasn’t homosexual, but Hamo-sexual.

Gosse and Thornycroft were spending time together when the first inspiration for The Mower hit. They were sailing with a group of friends up the Thames when they spotted a real-life mower on the riverbank, resting. Thornycroft made a quick sketch, and the idea for the sculpture was born. A wax model sketch from 1882 is at the Tate.

The real-life mower they saw was wearing a shirt, but for his sculpture Thornycroft stripped him down. He explained to his wife that he wanted to ‘keep his hat on and carry his shirt’ and that a brace over his shoulder will help ‘take off the nude look’.

Brace or no brace, it’s difficult to hide the fact that this is a celebration of the male body designed for erotic appeal. Thornycroft used an Italian model, Orazio Cervi. Cervi was famous in Victorian Britain for his ‘perfectly proportioned physique’ (art historical speak for a hot bod!)

Later in the century, photographs of The Mower and other artworks were collected and exchanged in secret along with photographs of real life nudes, by a network of men mostly in London – a kind of queer subculture, although it wouldn’t have been understood in those terms back then.

This was dangerous ground. The second half of the nineteenth century saw what has been described as a ‘homosexual panic’, with rising anxieties around gender identity, sexuality and same-sex desire. Fanny and Stella, the artist Simeon Solomon and Oscar Wilde were among many who were hounded and publicly prosecuted for ‘indecent’ behaviour.

These tensions showed up in the art world too. Many of the artists associated with the Aesthetic and Decadent movements in particular were under scrutiny for producing works that were described as ‘effeminate’, ‘degenerate’ or ‘decadent’. But works like The Mower suggest that art might have provided a safer space for playing out private desires in a public arena at this time.

 

Book your place on our free volunteer-led LGBTQ+ tours here, and keep an eye on our website and social media for future dates!  

 

It’s that time of year when the stress of Christmas countdown, the high expectations of the season and extended time spent indoors with family can make the best of us a little … well, stir crazy – and in dire need of a place to chill out. Of course, a museum visit is a perfect antidote whatever your age; we offer space, interesting things to see indoors, creative activities and workshops, a break from the everyday, and of course our national museums here in Wales offer free entry which won’t stretch the purse strings further!

But for some of our community, having a place to chill out is not just a ‘nice to have’, rather it is an essential need which makes life and being out and about possible. The National Waterfront Museum has created a dedicated ‘chill-out room’ designed for autistic visitors but for use by anyone who needs it. Here, Ian Smith Senior Curator of Modern & Contemporary Industry at the Waterfront Museum explains how this special space came about.

“In October 2016 we had a staff training day in ‘Autism Awareness’. It opened our eyes to how they see the world and how we can support their needs. It showed us how even the simplest of environmental changes can affect a person with autism. Things like light and sound levels, the colour of walls and floors. In fact the general layout of a space which might be deliberately made stimulating and flashy might cause many autistic people to retreat within themselves.

It was around this time that we welcomed a new volunteer at the museum. Rhys, 17, has autism. His mother contacted us and asked if he could volunteer with us to help his confidence when meeting people and in a real work environment. Rhys helps to run an object handling session, usually with another volunteer or a member of staff, and he has taken to it really well. We have all noticed that he’s become more outgoing and will now hold conversations with total strangers.

With the growing awareness of autism the Museum decided to create an Autism Champion. Our staff member Suzanne, who has an autistic son, readily agreed to take up the challenge. She now attends meetings with our sister museums where issues and solutions around autism are discussed.

During our training session we discovered that some organisations have created ‘chill-out’ rooms. These are for anyone who is feeling stressed or disturbed to go to and relax and gather themselves together. These rooms are especially useful for autistic people. We put a small group together to look at creating a safe, quiet space somewhere in the Waterfront Museum. After considering options, we decided that a little used first aid room on the ground floor offered the best place.

Rhys came into his own. He offered us a number of suggestions on how we could change the space to make it autism friendly. These included making the light levels controllable and sound proofing the room so that gentle music or relaxing sounds could be played. Suzanne too came up with a number of ideas from her own experience of looking after her son. Additionally, a local special school, Pen-y-Bryn, with whom we had an established relationship also offered us their valuable expertise.

The room we’ve created is a very soothing space and we find it gets regular use by people with a range of needs, and is clearly much appreciated as shown by the comments in the visitor’s book:

“Fantastic resource! My daughter really needed this today – thank you!”

“Lovely place to get away from the hustle and bustle for a little one.”

“Lovely idea for people on the spectrum to come for quiet.”

“Really helped my son to have some time out.”

This has been a very big learning curve for most of us, but it has been made much easier by talking to people who have direct experience of autism. Their input as part of our team has been invaluable.”

I began volunteering for Amgueddfa Cymru while I was studying at Cardiff University. I took part in a Family Learning Placement with the Learning Department in National Museum Cardiff. I had already decided that I wanted to work in the Museum Sector and I was already pretty certain that I wanted to work in museum learning from volunteering at other organisations.

The aim of the placement was to create and deliver drop-in craft activities for the summer holidays. Although I had volunteered in other museums, this placement allowed me to develop new skills and showed me the diverse jobs done by a Museum Educator.

In pervious volunteer roles, I had facilitated activities for school groups before but never designed them. This placement gave me the opportunity to create activities. I also had the opportunity to look around some of the stores, meet the curators and learn about preventative conservation.

This placement was great because it gave us clear learning objectives and an outcome. We had organised sessions, which taught us about designing family activities and gave us the chance to try out the activities the Museum already had.

Volunteering with Amgueddfa Cymru helped me develop skills, which I still use today as an Education Officer. It was my first glimpse into the diversity of the work of a Museum Educator and I have spoken about it a lot during interviews.

I now work in the Egypt Centre: Museum of Egyptian Antiquities as the Education and Events Officer. I organise and run the Museum’s Learning Programme.


Follow me on twitter @H_Sweetapple @TheEgyptCentre

With light and warm days of Summer being now a sweet memory we invite Autumn in with all its glory and grandeur. The leaves of the trees turning gold, orange and red create a feeling of warmth within comforting us and adapting our minds to the colder months ahead.

This year has been particularly different to me. I have been spending more days outdoors working in the garden, going for walks and being close to nature. This lifestyle change has been so beneficial both physically and mentally that I now welcome Autumn with different eyes. I remember when I used to dread this time of the year and would close myself into my cocoon thinking why don’t humans hibernate? But Autumn has so much to offer if we only challenge ourselves to spend more time in contact with nature.

The crispness of the air, the fallen leaves on the floor, the golden hues of the trees and the soft and delicate light can be only appreciated if we venture ourselves out of our comfort zones.

St Fagans Museum is a wonderful place to visit at this time of the year. The magnificent variety of trees changing colour and creating a crunchy carpet of leaves is the perfect invitation for a long walk.

There is one garden located on the terraced path near the ponds that was specifically designed with Autumn colours in mind. There you can find the bright red Euonymus alatus known as “Winged Spindle” or “Burning Bush”, the oriental Acer palmatum, the beautiful red berries of the Cotoneaster horizontalis and other amazing varieties in a beautiful display of colour. This garden is embraced by the gigantic Fern-leaved Beech (Fagus salvatica ‘Aspleniiflora’) one of the oldest trees planted in the Museum dating back to 1872.

If you enjoy gardening there are plenty of tasks that will keep you warm and busy at this time of the year. The joys of planting bulbs with great expectations for Spring or the meditative task of sweeping leaves and gathering them to make leaf mould. Also the perfect time for planting trees as they will have plenty of moisture available to get established.

So wrap up warm, get your wellies or winter boots on and explore the wonderful natural sites that bless the Welsh land.