Amgueddfa Blog

Last week saw the 50th anniversary and the 18th conference of ICOM-CC (Committee on Conservation), the largest of the committees of ICOM (International Council of Museums). ICOM-CC has almost 3,000 members worldwide from every branch of the museum and conservation profession. In addition to their day job of preserving the world's history and culture, these members also promote the conservation of cultural and historic works. I was able to attend thanks to generous support by the Anna Plowden Trust.

The conference was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, and was enormous: more than one thousand conservators headed the call to report and debate. While Copenhagen is an amazing city there was not much time to explore it, what with 5 parallel sessions and hundreds of talks to listen to during a packed conference programme. I would like to pick out and share just a few of my personal highlights.

The data generated during collections monitoring in museums can be explored sometimes beyond their original intention. Cristina Daron and Matija Strlic from University College London explained how unexpected patterns can be discovered by analysis of existing data sets. For example, they discovered a clear link between damage to archival objects and use of these objects in a reading room. This sort of data mining produces results that cannot be captured by experimental studies, but which can be used to improve decision making.

On the theme of data, I co-presented a talk with my colleague Jane Henderson from Cardiff University on new ways of presenting conservation data; you can find a copy of the paper here. Our suggestion is to present results not simply in the all too ubiquitous bar charts and line graphs, but to use more meaningful visualisations that are easier to interpret and send the correct message to the receiver. This will help make quicker and better decisions and ultimately improve the care of collections.

Conservation of cultural heritage involves a lot of risk assessments – there is so much to do that we try to figure out as objectively as possible where the most urgent need for resources is. Alice Cannon from Museum Victoria, Australia, explained how the deterioration of an object does not always mean a loss. Hence, when attempting to judge value loss, judgments must be made by experts from different fields. The potential value loss of an object needs to be considered when undertaking a risk assessment that might want to predict the estimated deterioration of that object in, say, 100 years.

Every museum has a store (or several), hence storage is a subject close to the heart for most people in the sector. Lise Raeder Knudsen from Conservation Centre Vejle, Denmark, summarised almost 30 years of experience of building low energy collection stores in Denmark. The main principle of such stores is high thermal and hydric inertia. The Danish cultural sector has proven that such stores can have both lower construction and running costs, while at the same time producing a stable environment suitable for the long-term storage of cultural collections. One issue currently still undergoing research is the potential problem of indoor pollutants which may accumulate if there is insufficient fresh air supply.

Likewise, training is an issue that keeps resurfacing in conservation as in other disciplines. Alice Boccia Paterakis introduced the Interdisciplinary Training of Archaeologists and Archaeological Conservators Initiative (ITAACI) programme from the USA, where archaeologists and conservators are being brought together to work jointly and raise awareness of each other’s needs. The training theme also carried through to the poster sessions, where Monika Harter from London informed us how the British Museum, with some clever planning, had used succession planning to train two conservators for the price of one. This included the passing on of hard-to-come-by expert knowledge from one generation to the next.

My final highlight is Jonathan Ashley-Smith’s analogy of coffee shops to explain why, in his opinion, conservation needs a new approach to ethics. He explained that a new, bespoke, code of ethics would use a variety of ingredients to design something that suits each of the various and diverse disciplines that make up cultural heritage conservation. The internet would provide the ideal tool to publish a bespoke code of ethics, as well as conservation intentions, proposals and records all in one place and, ideally, in Wikis. Jonathan’s talk created more debate and Twitter traffic than any other talk and I suspect his idea will keep being discussed.

The conference programme was rounded off by various specialist working group meetings, technical visits, opportunities to see Copenhagen’s museums and social events. A packed week with countless inspiring conversations with colleagues from all over the world. Not always without controversy of course – some ideas out there are interesting but perhaps require further scrutiny. Perhaps a topic for a future blog or paper.

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

The Bronze Age is full of different types of objects.

The discovery of metal about 3500 years ago meant new objects could be made or redesigned.

One such object is the axe. For thousands of years people across the world had been making axes out of stone. Bronze Age axeheads were then made out of metal in different shapes and sizes.

By the Late Bronze Age (1100-800 BC), axes were made with sockets, which allowed for the insertion of a wooden haft/handle. Often they had loops to secure the haft with binding, such as leather strips.

In South Wales, a specific form of axe seems to have been very popular and has been named the ‘South Wales axe’.

These axes have thick, flat socket mouths and a loop on one side. They are often heavy and poorly made. There are three raised ‘ribs’ on both faces of the axe. These are sometimes parallel and sometimes converging.

Hundreds of these axes have been found buried in Wales, either in their own or in large hoards of objects. Sometimes they are complete and sometimes they are broken; the reasons for this are uncertain.

An example has recently been found in the Trevithen Hoard, Torfaen, and is currently on display at Pontypool Museum.

South Wales axes have also been found across England, and as far away as northern France.

This implies these products were traded and exchanged over long distances.

The function of these axes is unclear. These axes may have been left in a rough condition because they were used in agricultural activities, such as cutting roots and breaking plough soil.

Whatever the reason they appear to have formed an important part of the Late Bronze Age in South Wales. As more are discovered, archaeologists will continue to gain insights into these objects.

 

My search for Hetty returned to the Museum. Our records showed that Hetty had volunteered with the British Red Cross Society during the Second World War. A number of items donated by Hetty are held at St Fagans including her nursing uniform, British Red Cross Society Badge and certificates. Unfortunately, no formal service records are held by the British Red Cross from that time. However, a chance finding when clearing out an old filing cabinet in the museum’s attic, revealed so much more!  I came across a folder called ‘Talks by Librarians’. As I glanced through it my heart started to race. There at the back was an old typewritten document entitled ‘A Life Amongst Books’. A quick look at the first page confirmed my suspicions: this was the title of a talk given by Hetty to the Barry Twentieth Century Club!

In it, Hetty describes how important books were to her from an early age:

‘In common with all youngsters my first love was the picture book, and especially if the pictures were in colour, however ethereal, gruesome or gory they might be.’
‘On winter evenings during the first World War, we knitted whilst Father stoked the fire and read to us’.

Later, Hetty explains how, having left school undecided on a career, she became a librarian, quite by accident. She spent a summer at the President of the National Library of Wales’ home, where she successfully prepared a card catalogue of his books, mainly to keep herself amused. At that time the National Library of Wales had newly been considered as a training centre for potential librarians in Wales. Hetty was asked to apply and was successful. As a Pupil-assistant, Hetty learnt the art of Librarianship, with ‘practical experience and theoretical training synchronised’.

Hetty completed her training in 1931 and was enjoying ‘resting on my oars’ when she was invited to apply for the position of Librarian at the National Museum, Cardiff. Hetty and another applicant were interviewed by the Museum Council, and on the 26th June 1931, Hetty was duly appointed Librarian. A job which she adored and felt honoured to serve for the next 39 years.

Trawling through the Museum's Annual Reports and Council Minutes, I found references to Hetty's work in the Library. Hetty was frequently called upon to give lectures. At the 21st Annual Conference of Libraries in Wales, June 1954, she addressed the Reference and Special Libraries Section (Western Group) of the Library Association on ‘Museum Libraries and the Library of the National Museum of Wales’:

“The function of a special and research library such as ours is to serve those who have already been converted to an ardent pursuit of knowledge…”

In another talk she gave in the 1950’s Hetty is quite clear on the role of books and libraries:

“I believe that books are very necessary tools and should be readily available where they are needed most.”
“A library thrives on use – proper use we hope. In any case, most librarians would rather run the risk of ‘wrongful’ use rather than that of [dust and] ‘rust’.”

In the 1950's she was frequently heard on the radio on the Welsh Home Service talking about the Museum. In 1958 Hetty appeared in a BBC Television programme, discussing the Schools Service section of the National Museum of Wales Jubilee film.

She was also active on various committees, serving for example, on the editorial board of the Bibliography of Welsh Poetry (1954-55). She was Chairman of the Wales & Monmouth Branch of the Library Association for 1967 and was their representative on the committee responsible for the 1968 Welsh Books Fair. That year she was also invited to serve on the Editorial Committee of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society.

“In museum life we are deeply conscious of the past, but we remember too that today is tomorrow’s yesterday.  As librarians let us face the challenge of the future with confidence.”

At the end of August 1970, Hetty retired from the Museum, having served a very successful and fulfilling 39 years in the role she adored.

Working at Amgueddfa Cymru’s History and Archaeology department over the last few months has revoked my interest in history… and even my own heritage.

One of the many benefits of working in the department is being able to preview the work by the staff of the museum’s Saving Treasures, Telling Stories project; the project highlights our nation’s treasures. It’s both a delight and eye-opener to see the objects collected by the museum, which hold more value than gold (from which some are made of), as these treasures stir our interest, provide us with knowledge… and can even fill us with pride when acknowledging that their roots lie in Wales.

A few weeks ago, museums across the UK were involved in #TakeOverDay; a day when social media pages were voluntarily taken over by youth community groups and schools.

Saving Treasures gladly took part and had young people to voice what they believed was treasure, then they got to ask the public what they considered as treasure. I know it’s a bit late but I thought I’d have a go at writing this blog to mention mine.

So, what’s my “treasure”?

It’s difficult for me since I’m not what you’d call a “materialistic” person but if you were to put me on the spot I’d have to say one of my top treasures would be... the collection of family photographs.

Why?

It comes down to a combination of my love for photography and my interest in family history.

I began my photographic love affair nearly a decade ago and my relationship with the art form is still as strong as ever after achieving a degree from the University of South Wales last year.

Though the end results from a simple photograph can give us a brief glimpse into the past, the cherished family photograph can give us much more; there’s more feeling towards an old family photograph than there is for an Ansel Adams… or should I dare say a photographic depiction of Wales by David Hurn!

More of these treasured photographs and the stories behind them can be found via my blog: https://merthyrranter.wordpress.com/2017/09/01/the-treasures-that-lie-in-a-biscuit-tin/

It’s usually during LGBT History Month in February that people start producing articles and events around sexual orientation and gender identity heritage. But history should not be restricted to just one month and now as Pride Cymru takes place in Cardiff, it’s a good time to consider LGBT history.

A Story on a Plate

Take for example a plate in the collections of Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales, which features an image of two women on horseback set within a landscape. It is just one in thousands of blue and white transfer printed wares so popular in the 19th century and beyond. However this picture is intriguing.

Plate, Glamorgan Pottery, c. 1813-1839

It is called “Ladies of Llangollen” inspired by the story of two women, Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby.

When Eleanor and Sarah developed a passion for each other in their native Ireland their families, alarmed by this same-sex attraction, tried to ban them from seeing each other. However, determined to be together, they made an escape in the dead of night but were quickly captured. Persistently Eleanor and Sarah fought for the right to be together until eventually they won and their families allowed them to leave.

They made their way to Wales and eventually set up home in a small cottage in Llangollen where they were to live together for over 50 years.

Growing Fame

Their fame quickly grew and were visited by and corresponded with all manner of people such as Shelley, Byron, Sir Walter Scott, the Duke of Wellington, Josiah Wedgewood and Caroline Lamb. Their deaths in 1829 and 1831, respectively, did not end the fascination with this couple and throughout the following centuries their fame has endured - making them probably the most famous lesbian couple in history.

During their lifetimes, the Ladies were adamant they wanted no portraits done.

However when Lady Parker visited in 1829 she got her mother to distract Eleanor and Sarah whilst she made quick sketches of their faces under the table. Eleanor was now quite blind so Lady Parker was able to sketch her full face whilst Sarah is in profile. After the couple’s deaths she worked the faces up into full body poses set within their library and sold copies of the picture to raise money for charity.

Portrait of Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, worked from a clandestine sketch made at their Llangollen home. (c) Norena Shopland
Portrait of Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, worked from a clandestine sketch made at their Llangollen home.

A Stolen Portrait

Around 1830 James Henry Lynch pirated the picture and produced what was to become the most enduring image of Eleanor and Sarah. It was mass produced and featured on a large range of tourist souvenirs, postcards and the covers of many books.

The 'Lynch' portrait of Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, pirated from the earlier 'Library' portrait and distributed on a mass scale. (c) Norena Shopland
The 'Lynch' portrait of Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, pirated from the earlier 'Library' portrait and distributed on a mass scale.

The picture Lynch produced was of the two women standing outside dressed in riding habits which both women were known to favour. And it appears at the tail end of a period of public fascination with Eleanor and Sarah’s lives.

The story of the Ladies had reached a wide audience by the late 18th-early 19th century and numerous accounts of their lives were being produced. Even William Wordsworth wrote a poem in 1824 after visiting them. Therefore interest was high when the pottery designs started appearing.

Glamorgan Pottery and the History of the 'Llangollen' plate

The first design shows the women on horseback talking to a man carrying a scythe over his shoulder with some cattle, the town of Llangollen, the River Dee and a highly imaginative Castell Dinas Bran in the background.

'Ladies of Llangollen' blue pattern plate marked with 'BBI' stamp

The earliest date for the design is via a base stamp ‘BB&I’. This refers to Baker, Bevin and Irwin of Glamorgan Pottery and was used c. 1815-25. It went on to become one of Glamorgan Pottery’s most famous pieces and means that the plate was produced during the lifetime of both Eleanor and Sarah. The two women, both avid diary keepers, made no comment so we don’t know if they knew of the plates or if they approved of being fictionalised.

Glamorgan pottery was then taken over by Swansea businessman Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn in 1838 and he continued to produce the design using the Glamorgan, Swansea and Cambrian stamps until around 1840. However it is likely that he was already using the same design at the Cambrian Pottery from around 1825, as there was rivalry between the two potteries and they did use some of the same designs.[1]

The fascinating link here is that the most famous member of Lewis’ family was Amy Dillwyn. Amy, a business woman, ran her father’s spelter works after his death, was also a well-known novelist.

She too was in a same sex relationship. It would be nice to have a flight of fancy and think that Amy, having seen the Glamorgan plate, had some influence in getting her brother to produce it at the Cambrian Pottery but there is no evidence of her involvement.

Detail of blue plate showing an illustration of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler © Norena Shopland
Detail of blue plate showing an illustration of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler © Norena Shopland

Detail of blue plate showing an illustration of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler © Norena Shopland
Detail of blue plate showing an illustration of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler © Norena Shopland

It is not clear whether it was the Glamorgan pottery design which was produced first or another by William Adams of Stoke. This design, also called Ladies of Llangollen, features the two women, again in riding habits, standing looking down at a man who appears to be showing them a large fish. Behind them stand their horses whilst in the distance there are two men in a boat, one punting along, a bridge and on the bank a rustic cottage. The mountain Cadair Berwyn is in the centre.

Adams had produced a pottery series called ‘Native’ in the 1820s and this design was part of that series. Not long after F. and R. Pratt of Fenton, Staffordshire acquired the plates from Adams and reproduced the series between 1880 and 1920 renaming it ‘Pratt’s Native Scenery.’ When Cauldon took over Pratt’s in the 1920s they continued using the design up to c1930s.

There continues to be enormous interest in Eleanor and Sarah - particularly when discussing how we define lesbian relationships from the past. However despite the mass of interest these fictionalised blue and white images are hardly ever mentioned. But at least we know that Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales have this piece in their LGBT collection.

 

NORENA SHOPLAND

Author of Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales to be published by Seren Books, 17th October 2017

Website: http://www.rainbowdragon.org

 

[1] Thanks to Andrew Renton, Keeper of Art,  Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales for clarifying this