Amgueddfa Blog

This week marks the launch of the exhibition ‘People and Plants’ in the Insight Gallery, National Museum Cardiff and accompanying public report ‘Sharing Stories, Sharing Collections.’

The exhibition and report are outcomes of a collaborative placement between the Sustainable Places Research Institute and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales funded by the National Environment Research Council Valuing Nature Programme.

During the placement, Dr. Poppy Nicol (Sustainable Places Research Institute) spent four months within the Natural Science Department at National Museum Cardiff. Poppy worked with Principal Curator Dr. Heather Pardoe and other members of the Botany team to investigate the Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection and its potential role it can play in supporting, valuing and understanding of biodiversity. As part of the placement, Poppy and Heather conducted a series of workshops with community groups and interviews, with the aim of exploring how future activities associated with the economic botany collection can further societal understanding and valuing of biodiversity and address the Museum’s duty of well-being.  

Drawing upon the findings of the placement, the exhibition offers insight into the Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection and the important role of plants in society.  

Health, well-being and plants

The Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection includes over 5,500 specimens of medicinal plants, food products, fibres, seeds, gums, dyes and resins, most of which were acquired between the nineteenth century and present day. The selected specimens in the ‘People and Plants’ exhibition highlights the role of plants in supporting the health and well-being of past, present and future generations.

Plant-based Remedies: old and new

The economic botany collection contains over 700 medicinal plant specimens including a Materia Medica (donated by Professor Terence Turner, Cardiff School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences). The exhibition features a range of plant specimens used medicinally – including quinine (used for treating malaria), star anise (containing a compound used for treating influenza) and senna pods (a traditional laxative).

It also features a contemporary example of a plant-based compound for medicinal purposes – the daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus). Although toxic if consumed raw, it contains galantamine which is used in the treatment of the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease.

Biocultural diversity: heritage grains

The exhibition also showcases some of the specimens within the Museum’s economic botany seed collection - which contains over 2,700 seed specimens. The collection includes a range of wheat, barley, oat and rye varieties acquired from the Welsh Plant Breeding Station. Hen Gymro, an old wheat variety affectionately known as “Old Man’s Beard” was cultivated in South Wales into the 1920’s, said to have thrived in South Wales. With predicted changing climates and the urgent need for more ecological growing approaches, perhaps some of these old grain varieties might be of value for future farmers and growers. The exhibition highlights the importance of safeguarding biodiversity – of both wild and cultivated crops and wild species.

Sharing Stories, Sharing Collections

The accompanying report to the exhibition, ‘Sharing Stories, Sharing Collections’ by Poppy, highlights how bio-cultural collections have the potential to support public understanding and valuing of biodiversity. It suggests recent legislation in the form of the Well Being of Future Generations Act (Wales) (2015) presents opportunity for Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales to become a global innovator in terms of curating bio-cultural collections.

The report identifies clear interest in the Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection amongst the public. It identifies a number of opportunities for innovation in bio-cultural and economic botany collections including research-driven curation; inter-generational learning programmes; and, innovative and participatory approaches to digitisation. Inter-disciplinary collaboration with other centres of learning particularly present great opportunities to share and enhance the value of the collection. Such innovations will improve the role of the collection in supporting public valuing and understanding of biodiversity and the health and well-being of future generations.

In an era where biodiversity is being eroded, bio-cultural collections have a crucial societal role of developing understanding and valuing of biodiversity through raising public awareness of the crucial role of plants in supporting livelihoods, supporting health and well-being, maintaining ecosystem services and adapting to global environmental change.

You can see the People & Plants exhibition at National Museum Cardiff until Sunday 17 March.

Read more about the start of the project in this February 2018 blog post.

The early 18th century court mantua from Tredegar House is perhaps the most well-known dress in the collection of Amgueddfa Cymru. Donated to the Museum in 1923 by Lord Tredegar, the mantua is currently on show in the Wales is… gallery at St Fagans.

Last year, we commissioned Kate Barlow – a maker and needlework teacher, originally from Mold – to replicate a motif from mantua’s heavily embroidered petticoat. This beautifully crafted tactile piece is now on display alongside the dress in the gallery. Here, Kate explains how she went about replicating the motif, and how she became a professional embroiderer.

Can you tell me how you got into embroidery?

From a very early age, I always loved to draw and paint and make things. My Nan was the kind of lady who could do all kinds of crafty things and she taught me to sew and to do embroidery. I went on to study Theatre Design at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and specialised in costume. I worked for a few years as a freelance costume maker and then joined the wardrobe department at the Welsh National Opera. I stayed with WNO for nearly eight years and loved my job very much, but I missed being creative. I decided to take the plunge and re-train as a professional embroiderer and tutor at the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace. After three years of intensive training, I graduated with distinction in 2016 and haven’t looked back since.

How did you go about replicating the motif from the mantua – what were the steps/processes involved?

I chose a motif from the original mantua that would make sense on its own and work well as a stand-alone piece. I then chose threads and wires that replicated the originals as closely as possible, and sourced a teal coloured silk satin as the ground fabric. 

To transfer the motif to the silk, the design was drawn onto tracing paper and tiny holes were pricked along the lines with a needle to create the ‘pricking’. The tracing paper was then pinned to the silk which had been laced into an embroidery frame. Pounce powder made from ground charcoal and cuttlefish bone was rubbed through the holes of the pricking and the paper removed. Excess pounce was blown away and the dotted lines were painted over using watercolour paint, a fine paintbrush and a very steady hand! Once the painted lines are dry the stitching can start. 

Goldwork embroidery has to be worked in a certain order, with any padding being done first. Then the check thread and smooth passing threads are couched down, any loose ends are ‘plunged’ through to the back of the work and stitched down. The cutwork is always stitched last as it is quite fragile. Wire check and smooth purl resemble tiny springs and are made from very fine wires. These can be cut to the right lengths and stitched down in the same way as a bead. The thread used to stitch the goldwork down is always run through beeswax to protect and strengthen it. Goldwork threads, particularly cutwork, can be quite sharp and can damage the sewing thread. The beeswax helps to prevent this.

How long did it take you from start to finish?

From choosing the motif to taking the final stitches, the whole process took over 15 hours. 

Do you have any thoughts on the design and skill level of the embroidery on the mantua?

The mantua is made from silk damask which would have been costly on its own, but the amount of metal thread embroidery would have made it a very expensive purchase when new. The mantua would definitely have made a statement when it was worn, the embroidery would have truly sparkled, especially in candlelight. The embroidery would have been done by an experienced craftsman. Working with metal threads is very different from other embroidery techniques and requires a great deal of skill. 

Do you have a favourite embroidery technique or a favourite period in embroidery history?

I don’t really have a favourite embroidery technique, but I really like the effects that can be created with blackwork. Black threads on white linen can look stunning. I’m bit of a magpie and love anything that sparkles. I like using goldwork techniques with coloured metal threads and wires. I also love the stumpwork that was stitched in the late 1600s and early 1700s. The level of detail, the fineness of the stitching, the figures and motifs are all fascinating. The skill involved can be exceptional, particularly when there was no artificial light to help.

What does embroidery give to you? How does it make you feel?

There are endless possibilities with embroidery. Beautiful things can be created with just a needle and thread. There are so many different techniques, I feel like there is always something new to learn and always room for improvement. I really enjoy recreating historical embroidery. Most of the techniques and tools used in hand embroidery haven’t changed much in hundreds of years and stitching period designs gives a little window into the lives of stitchers past.

Charles designed, and built a monoplane around 1906, taught himself to fly and flew the plane between 1907 and 1910. Although no photographic evidence of this exists, the Charles Horace Watkins Monoplane Special, now better known as the ‘Robin Goch’ or ‘Red Robin’ has a strong claim to be the first aeroplane to fly in Wales.

Charles lived in Cardiff and his workshop can still be found a stone’s throw from Cardiff University. It was here he built the plane making use of everyday parts that he converted for his needs. For instance, a kitchen chair for the pilot’s seat; a brass domestic light switch on the dashboard; an egg timer as a navigation aid; a ball bearing in a cradle to tell if the plane was flying level and two weights dangling on string under the aircraft, one 20 feet long and one 10 feet long so he knew how far off the ground he was when landing!     

 

In 2010 I interviewed two brothers, Michael and Sean Gomez, whose family lived next door to Mr Watkins. The brothers, who were in their 70s, remembered Charles fondly and told me many tales of what it was like in the 1950s for two young boys growing up next door to the ‘great inventor’. Here is an extract of my conversation with them.

He always had time for us and he was always trying to do something new (he would have been in his late 60s at this time). We were fascinated going there, the projects he was working on seemed totally out of this world, and quite possibly one was! He showed us a mock-up of a flying saucer he’d built. When we asked him how it would fly he replied “It’s top secret!” We couldn’t tell if he meant it or whether he was working on a secret project as the saucer seemed to work on the same principle as a hovercraft with fans providing downward thrust and other fans along the sides for direction.

He was very interested in project ‘ZETA’ – obtaining energy from water (Zero Energy Thermonuclear Reactor). He had diagrams all over his walls and said he was being consulted on this and also the Concorde project.

He was always inventing something every time we met him. During the war he came up with an idea to deflect headlights of cars down to just in front of the vehicle. This was tested by South Wales Police on behalf of the MoD.

One thing that stands out about his workshop is that he had about thirty cuckoo clocks and Westminster chiming clocks. He would faithfully wind them up every day and when it came to the hour they all went off at slightly different times! You had this cacophony of sound!

He lived with his sister who was profoundly deaf so he came up with an idea whereby if the doorbell was pushed a beam of light went all the way to the end of the hall where it reflected off various mirrors until it reached the kitchen so his sister could see it!

He invented a machine from which he made most of his money. In those days spectacle frames were made of tortoiseshell and being relatively brittle, typically they would snap just behind the hinge. So, I remember in his middle room he had hundreds of cardboard boxes containing the arms of these glasses.

He’d invented some sort of ultra-sound machine. He’d put the two arms of the specs into this tiny machine and he’d bring the nozzle down on it. The machine had lots of coils of wires and all sorts of strange things and it hummed and buzzed. And ‘hey presto’ when it came out you couldn’t see where the join was – it was seamless. Of course ultrasonic welding is quite common now for welding plastics.

He had spectacles from opticians from all over the country and he made a tremendous amount of money from it. I remember seeing a pile of white five pound notes on his table just tied up with string. It seemed to me as a boy quite a lot, but in reality was probably only a couple of thousand (pounds) still a lot of money then though. He didn’t believe in banks! I don’t think he had a bank account, he kept all his money at home.

He also had a radio, that he built himself, which could receive American radio stations. This was quite something at that time. He took it apart one day and let me have a look at it and it had about fifteen valves!

He didn’t show the monoplane to anyone, although we nagged constantly to see it. Then one day he told us if we came round on Saturday we could see it. The amazing thing was that this man had a plane in his garage when most people didn’t have cars!

He had the prop hanging up on the wall and we asked him where he got it from because at that time you couldn’t just get one from anywhere? He told us he’d carved it himself out of a piece of sapele. When we asked how he knew the shape to make it he replied “Well one just knows these things you see”

We questioned him about how he learned to fly and he said “I just taught myself. I wasn’t worried about getting it up, but I was worried about getting it back down!”

From the conversations that I had with him, I developed the opinion that the plane really did fly. If it had not I think Mr Watkins would have been more evasive with his answers and he certainly wasn’t evasive in any way.

When we asked him what he was going to do with it he said that he’d like to leave it to the nation.

“I had an American sniffing around, said he wanted to buy it. Offered me several hundred pounds for it. I told him to bugger off!”

 

For me Charles represents a generation filled with explorers, scientists and inventors who were making new discoveries on a daily basis. They were at the birth of an age, of which we are still a part, when people have seen massive technological changes in their lives. I do wonder sometimes where we would be without people like Charles Horace Watkins, the great inventor!

Every river has its source, starting small then gathering pace. Our project on freshwater snails is doing just that as we tumble into 2019. “Codi i’r Wyneb – Brought to the Surface is a 2-year project to create a new guide to the freshwater snails of Britain and Ireland, supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund. Where better to begin than with Amgueddfa Cymru’s world class Mollusca collections?

This month we are joined by three new faces: our Project Officer, Harry Powell, and volunteers Jelena Nefjodova and Mike Tynen. Harry studied biology and ecology at Plymouth University, and is a former volunteer here himself. Mike spent many years with the Cheshire Wildlife Trust and Jelena is a current student at Cardiff University. All four of us have gotten stuck in to the snail collections here, of which we’ll say more in a moment.

To date over 1000 other people, and several organisations, have already engaged with Brought to the Surface. Our travelling display was especially popular at Swansea Science Festival in November 2018, where many members of the public took the chance to get up close (up to 50X magnification!) with British and foreign freshwater snails on our stand. We also showcased specimens at two conferences at the Museum, Unknown Wales (Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales) and at the Wales Biodiversity Partnership.

These displays will evolve as the project does, but also on the way is a more permanent exhibit at the Museum, now in the design stages. This gives us an excuse to feature a photo by our partner Hannah Shaw, of the magnificent Llangloffan Fen near Fishguard, Pembrokeshire. We’ve been looking for a lush landscape, captured in summer, to make a good backdrop for the display. It’s also a reminder that, having passed the solstice, outdoor snail activities are not too far away.

Summer will also bring our series of “Snail Day” training and key testing events around Wales. Our partner Mike Dobson has been especially quick of the mark in helping draft a comprehensive key to try out with the public at these. We are fortunate in having such a range of snail specimens from the Museum to use in these activities, but it will also be fun for people to have a go at finding and identifying their own. After all, the ideal key is one that should allow a total beginner to identify the very first snail they find…

And so back to the collections, the foundation of this kind of biology and a unique asset of museums. Harry, Mike and Jelena have been helping review and curate what we already have, and others have kindly been sending specimens from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland for our project. Particular thanks to our partner Martin Willing from the Conchological Society, who is hot on the trail of Britain’s more obscure freshwater snail species. Our Twitter account @CardiffCurator will feature many of these over the next couple of years with the hashtag #FreshwaterSnailoftheFortnight. The photos, descriptions and DNA sequences from 150 years’ worth of snail study will all be the basis for our eventual Field Studies Council publication.

We’ll report again as more people, places and snails join us on our journey.

In the last post I wrote about some of the fascinating objects held in the display case in the Clore Discovery Centre at National Museum Cardiff. Today I’m going to focus on another object with a rich history.

One of the most popular objects in the display is the curious nineteenth-century Meissen figurine Monkey Orchestra Pianist, produced in paste porcelain and painted in enamels. A visual inspection of this monkey reveals he is costumed as a courtier. He is caught in the moment of looking over his shoulder at the viewer, sitting on another monkey while playing the harpsicord. Even as a nineteenth-century reproduction, Monkey Orchestra Pianist delightfully captures movement as if in suspended animation that can thrill the viewer.

Close scrutiny of Monkey Orchestra Pianist can help to get a sense of the period in which the original version of this ceramic was produced. It is a reproduction of the hard-paste Meissen porcelain Figure Group of Two Monkeys, produced in 1753 by the German Meissen modeller Johann Joachim Käendler (1706-1775).

During the eighteenth century, porcelain was one of the most prized materials in the world. Developed in China around 2,000 years ago, by the early years of the eighteenth century trade in porcelain wares to Europe was thriving. However, the method for making porcelain remained a secret to Europeans until the German alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719) discovered its formula. As a result, the King of Poland, Augustus the Strong (1670-18), established the Meissen factory in 1710 to produce decorative wares. Meissen porcelain figures could be satirical, mythological or allegorical, and were designed to convey information about their owners – a level of intellect perhaps or even their sense of humour.

Observing the absurd facial expression, posture, actions and brilliantly coloured frills of Monkey Orchestra Pianist’s sitting monkey also conveys clues as to the more entertaining aspect of eighteenth-century life and its desire to consume visual spectacles of every sort. Indeed, the Figure Group of Two Monkeys (of which Monkey Orchestra Pianist is a replica) belongs to Käendler’s fantastical ‘Monkey Orchestra’ or ‘Affenkapelle des Grafen Brühl – The Monkey Orchestra’, created in 1753. This band consists of 21 monkey musicians, the male figures depicted as musicians, the female ones as singers, thus wittily holding up a mirror to courtly society.

Apparently, Augustus the Strong commissioned these decorative caricatures after a guest at one his banquets said that his orchestra played like performing monkeys! Monkey Orchestra Pianist’s dressy green trousers, purple jacket and long wig is suggestive of the fact Käendler took inspiration from the drawings made by the French artist Christophe Huet (1700-1759). In the 1700s, a taste in France for depictions of monkeys mimicking human activities led to the development of a genre known as ‘singerie’ – from the French word ‘singe’ (monkey). Huet published the Livre de Singeries (Book of Monkeys) and was responsible for the mural decoration of the Singerie Rooms at the Château de Chantilly in the 1730s. In his paintings for the Singerie Rooms, Huet’s costumed monkeys act as ‘surrogates’ for the chateau’s residents, shown singing, dancing and even sledding.

Again, these objects are just a small fraction of National Museum Cardiff’s wonderful collection of ceramics to look out for, so please come and explore!