Amgueddfa Blog: National Waterfront Museum

Adventures in Letterpress

Steph Mastoris - Head of National Waterfront Museum, 25 June 2020

For Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum of Wales' craft week, we've been asking our teams to share their passion for craft. Here, Head of the National Waterfront Museum, Steph Mastoris shares a little about his passion for letterpress.

Throughout my working life (and a bit before) I have been fascinated by the craft of letterpress printing –that messy process of covering metal and wooden type with ink and then squeezing a sheet of paper onto the surface to make a beautiful, clean impression. Although it sounds a simple thing to do, it actually requires much trial and error before a uniform and correctly-positioned impression of the type can be made repeatedly to create a leaflet or book. This also doesn’t sound very relaxing, but like most crafts it is totally absorbing and a wonderful way to give your mind a break from the day-job.

The biggest problem for anyone wanting to print by letterpress is that there is quite a lot of equipment needed just to get started, and it took me about ten years to find an affordable little press, type and all the bits and pieces to hold the assembled words together for printing. But printers are a friendly bunch and generous in giving advice and help to people like me who had no training in this inky art.

Steph Mastoris' work at the On the Brink show.

Like many amateur printers I started by making my own Christmas cards or type-works for special occasions such as weddings or christenings, using lovely old wooden type that is easy to set and gives a very textured impression, especially when printed on dampened hand-made paper. These I printed at first on an old office ‘nipping press’ (designed originally for copying hand-written letters before photocopiers were invented), then I acquired a proofing press from a prison workshop and then, in the early 1990s, a beautiful cast-iron Albion printing press came my way. This had been made in the late 1860s from an original design of about 1820 and still prints perfectly today. 

A few years after I moved to Swansea in 2004 to help set up the National Waterfront Museum I was lucky to join the Elysium Studios –a dynamic artist-led co-operative in the heart of the city. The additional space this provided meant that I could use proper metal type in my work. More importantly, having somewhere to print that was not on the kitchen table, which had to be cleared away for meals, meant that I could my take time to think through my work and move beyond just making pretty texts.

One of Steph Mastoris' letterpress triptychs displayed at an exhibition

As a result of this new-found freedom and the opportunity to talk with practicing artists I have become interested in using letterpress printing to explore the subtleties of language where punctuation, form and layout can change or create ambiguities of meaning. At its simplest the aesthetics and tonal impact of hand-printed wood type can be radically altered by enlarging it several hundred per cent. More subtly I use small typographic triptychs to draw the viewer’s attention to the three-dimensional quality of language that arises when similar-sounding words and the different silences between them are exhibited in plain, hand-printed type.



Journey to Becoming the UK's First Museum of Sanctuary

Ian Smith - Senior Curator of Modern & Contemporary Industry, National Waterfront Museum, 20 June 2020

In 2017 the National Waterfront team undertook ‘Asylum Seeker and Refugee Awareness Training'. What they learned inspired them to engage further with local refugee communities. An active programme of engagement, support and participation, created in partnership with local refugees and support agencies was developed to welcome and help integrate refugees and those seeking asylum into the community. This has included hosting a monthly support group, sewing and creative writing classes, a ballet class for children seeking sanctuary, for which local dance schools donated spare shoes and leotards, and two exhibitions: Chips, Curry Cappuccino and Young, Migrant and Welsh from the Ethnic Minorities and Youth Support Team Wales.

In recognition of this work, in June of 2018 the National Waterfront Museum became the UK’s first Museum of Sanctuary. What follows is an edited blog, written by museum curator Ian Smith in 2017 about the museums’ learning journey. It has been updated to reflect today’s statistics on refugees and asylum seekers worldwide.

Wales is culturally diverse from three hundred years of industrial heritage and a history of people coming here for work in mining and quarrying, dock yards and heavy industry. Lately jobs in tourism, modern industry and students coming to study at our universities make us a melting pot of cultures. Swansea has been at the heart of multicultural Wales since the industrial revolution, a place where people of different races, cultures and faiths have lived side by side for centuries. It is a city that has benefited from the vibrancy and creativity of a multicultural population. Unsurprisingly with this background, Swansea became a ‘City of Sanctuary’ in 2010, the second one in the UK after Sheffield.

Part of my job is in the Public History Team for Amgueddfa Cymru. This means we actively seek out different groups and individuals in the community and gather their stories and history. Through my job I have met people who have been displaced from their homeland for various reasons and are seeking safety and shelter.

So, when in May 2017, I attended ‘Asylum Seeker and Refugee Awareness’ training at the Waterfront Museum as part of our staff training, I thought I was fairly clued up about the subject.

The training was delivered by a lady working for Swansea City of Sanctuary and another lady who was an asylum seeker and she told us about her personal experiences.

It’s strange, we see stuff on the TV and news and read stories in the papers and get a picture in our heads about a situation but very often is only half a story. Learning factual numbers and hearing personal testimony made me realise how far off the mark I was, how little I knew.

For instance, we were asked to rank the top ten countries of the world in order of which ones take the most refugees. As a group we managed to name one or two correctly.

Today the countries that host the largest numbers of refugees are : Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Uganda.

Surprised? I was. The UK, Germany or France don’t make the top ten even though I was convinced they would as it seems to make headlines on a regular basis in our media. The biggest refugee camp in the world is Cox’s Bazar in Southern Bangladesh, which houses nearly a million Rohingya people who have fled their home country of Myanmar.  

We learned what the difference is between an asylum seeker and a refugee. Both are displaced persons – they have had to leave their country of origin for lots of different reasons; war, religious beliefs, persecution or sexual orientation.

An asylum seeker is a person who is fleeing persecution in their home country, has come to the UK and made themselves known to the authorities. They then exercise their legal right to apply for asylum. If they are granted asylum here then they have ‘refugee’ status.

I found out that many of these desperate people are brought to Europe and the UK by traffickers and quite often have no idea which country they are in. Most are stripped of belongings and passports so have no way of proving who they are, their age and marital status etc. when questioned by the authorities.

After assessment and a screening interview, if the person becomes an asylum seeker they then have to wait until their case is further assessed to get refugee status or be rejected. At any time during this process people can be subject to detention, deportation or destitution. Destitution means having no recourse to public funds, having no money and nowhere to live.

Asylum seekers are dispersed all over the country and are given free accommodation in private lettings. They are not allowed to work. They receive a maximum of £37.75 a week per person - £5.39 a day for food, toiletries, everyday needs and travel. As asylum seekers have to regularly sign in at an immigration office, which can be some distance from where they live, a day’s money can be used up in bus fares.

The application process can take years for a person to get a decision on refugee status and the onus is on the asylum seeker to prove persecution of an ongoing threat and not a one off occurrence.

For many this period in limbo can be very difficult. The lady we spoke to told us to imagine you suddenly found yourself in somewhere like China and couldn’t speak the language or understand the culture. Finding your way around and doing simple tasks is almost impossible. For example, she told us her and her two young children were placed in a house in Swansea on a cold January day. The house was cold, it had central heating but she had never seen central heating controls before and didn’t know how to work it. This lady was a psychologist in her own country but her qualifications are useless in the UK. She told us that even with all these problems she felt safe here, which was all she wanted for her family.

After the process is completed and refugee status is granted, as refugees they have the right to work and apply for family reunification. If refugee status is not granted there are a number of avenues for appeal but ultimately if status is not granted then the person can be deported.

After listening to the trainer and hearing the stories of asylum seekers I was left with a helpless feeling inside me. Every story we heard made me think ‘what if that was me and my family?’ and how grateful we would be to find somewhere to feel safe. The biggest point I took away from the morning was: Refugees are just people like you and me who had jobs, housing, education and good standards of living, suddenly taken away from them through no fault of their own. They just need the chance to start over again without fear.

In the year ending March 2020, the UK offered protection – in the form of asylum, humanitarian protection, alternative forms of leave and resettlement – to 20,339 people

The Waterfront continues to work with local refugee and asylum seeker groups, and to welcome new friends from across the world to our Swansea community.


Ysgol Pen-Y-Bryn - Celebrate Ten

William Sims, 10 June 2020

This exhibition was originally planned to be staged at the National Waterfront Museum between 28th of March and 28th of June 2020. 

Everybody across Amgueddfa Cymru is very proud of our collaborations with Ysgol Pen-Y Bryn so in light of the current situation we have decided to share the exhibition with you online 

The exhibition celebrates the National Waterfront Museum’s  ten-year partnership with Ysgol Pen-y-Bryn, with highlights from their amazing past projects. From Welsh Rugby Legends to Pirates this exhibition showcases the talents of the school's pupils and staff. There is also the chance to discover their latest innovative work creating exciting resources for children in schools based on the new Welsh Curriculum.​

Download Exhibition (PDF)

A new friend for the Waterfront Museum

Ian Smith - Senior Curator of Modern & Contemporary Industry, National Waterfront Museum, 4 June 2020

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.

Happy Holiday Reminisces while we Stay Home and Stay Safe

Ian Smith - Senior Curator of Modern & Contemporary Industry, National Waterfront Museum, 28 May 2020

It’s really important that we continue to stay at home and stay safe here in Wales. During this Whitsun week many of you are getting creative and camping in the garden or enjoying a staycation in the caravan on the drive. Some of you might be reminded of camping or caravanning trips to the Urdd Eisteddfod over the years, or to some of your favourite holiday spots along our coast. So, to help us all with a little holiday nostalgia as we stay at home, here’s Ian Smith, Curator at the National Waterfront Museum with a little of the history behind this picture:

This image was taken about 1951 and features the Dodds family who lived in Cardiff. Mr Dodds commissioned the caravan in 1950 to be built and fitted out by Louis Blow & Co in Canton, Cardiff. The van cost £600.00 which was a small fortune in those days. The family toured all over South Wales, eventually though the van was left permanently on a farmer’s field near Newport in Pembrokeshire. There, the family had all their summer holidays until 2009.

The family planned the layout and it included such things as a special cupboard top that the baby’s carry cot would fit perfectly; a fold down double bed for Mother and Father and a sliding oak dividing screen which effectively formed two bedrooms. There was a small kitchen with a gas stove and a sink with a footpump tap to provide washing water. Drinking water had to be colleced in big aluminium containers – a good job for the children if they needed tiring out. The awning doubled the size of the living space and provided an area to keep things dry.

In 2009 the museum was offered the caravan by Michael Dodds, then in his 70s. Mike is the older boy at the back of the group in the picture. The caravan is on display in St Fagans National Museum of History in the ‘Life Is …’ Gallery.