Amgueddfa Blog

Within Amgueddfa Cymru’s botany collections are books of dried plant specimens created by scientists and enthusiasts. Each specimen has been carefully dried and pressed, before being added to the books, sometimes with handwritten or printed notes alongside. The books are of enormous importance both in terms of modern scientific research into climate change and biodiversity, and as a way to see first hand the history of botanical exploration.

You can now look through a catalogue of the 36 books that contain non-flowering plants, fungi, lichens and seaweeds. You can read about a few of the stories surrounding these books below. For more detailed information about each book, please visit the website.

These books show the changes in how we collect, classify and name plants over two centuries from 1800 to present day. An old volume which probably dates from the 19th century entitled “New Zealand Mosses”, contains more than just mosses. Lichens, algae and even some pressed hydrozoans (tiny marine animals) have been included by the unknown collector who chose to group these superficially similar ‘moss-like’ specimens together. This donation entered the Museum’s collections after its Royal Charter was received and before work had begun on the present Cathays Park building.

While the earliest currently known non-flowering plant specimen in the Museum is a moss collected in 1794 from Gwynedd, the earliest specimen book dates from 1803. This book is Lewis Weston Dillwyn’s personal collection of seaweed and freshwater algae collected between 1803 and 1809. Dillwyn’s specimen book was donated to the Museum in 1938 by the National Library of Wales, and has great importance both scientifically and historically.

Lewis Weston was part of the influential Dillwyn family, and his son John Dillwyn Llewelyn became an early pioneer photographer. He was interested in the natural history that he saw in south Wales where he lived. This is reflected in his scientific research as well as in the pottery designs created while he was owner of Cambrian Pottery. Dillwyn described new species of algae and his specimen book contains type specimens (irreplaceable specimens used in the original description of a species). The book is a personal record of his scientific life, recording places he visited and scientists who sent him specimens. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1804 and later had a plant genus named after him in recognition of his work.

Many of the botanical specimen books in National Museum Cardiff have a fascinating history. Two contain mosses collected by Thomas Drummond on the Second Overland Arctic expedition between 1825 and 1827 to British North America (now Canada). Delving further into the book’s background reveals that the Captain, Sir John Franklin, sent Drummond to the Rocky Mountains with one Native American hunter. After the hunter left him on his own, he survived a severe winter, being mauled by a bear, and starvation. He still managed to collect, preserve and study many new plants of the North American continent. This work was published by Sir W.J. Hooker, who later became the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The more recent books are systematically collected specimens known as ‘exsiccatae’. These are sets of duplicate specimens distributed by scientists to other museums. They help to spread the risk of losing a particularly important set of specimens, and to allow scientists around the world to study them. Lists of their contents are usually published in a journal or online. Much of the Berlin Herbarium and the botanical specimens within it was destroyed in World War 2, however many duplicate specimens from this collection survive in other herbaria around the world. From around the 1900s, exsiccatae changed from being bound books to being loose specimens. This meant museums receiving them could incorporate them into their collections alongside other closely related specimens for easier access and comparison.


Recently, we’ve been privileged to accept a fabulous new accession into our collection.  It is a set of three silk garments which belonged to Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, 4th Baronet, who lived between 1749 and 1789.  He owned vast areas of land in Wales, was active in politics and was a great patron of the arts.  You can find out more about him here:

Image of painting of Watkin Williams-Wynn from our 'Collections Online'
Small pastel portrait from the museum's collections

As part of Sir Watkin’s lavish lifestyle came an opulent wardrobe.  The garments we have acquired are a matching set of waistcoat and breeches made from grey silk, woven with silver metal thread, silk embroidery and metal thread trim,

F2019.21.1 waistcoat Watkin Williams-Wynn

F2019.21.1 waistcoat, detail of buttons, embroidery and metal thread weave

F2019.21.2 breeches Watkin Williams-Wynn

F2019.21.2 breeches, metal trim

F2019.21.2 breeches, button








as well as an embroidered waistcoat of flamboyantly pink satin. 

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat Watkin Williams-Wynn

 All three items have passed through the Textile Conservation Studio over the last few weeks to record the garments’ construction, materials, and condition, before packing them up to go into storage.  The grey set of waistcoat and breeches were in remarkably good condition, but I was worried about the embroidery on the pink waistcoat.  The embroidery consists of undulating bands of white net which covers small florets made of paper.  The bands run down both sides of the centre front and across the lower edge as well as across the pocket flaps.  Other embroidery features are foliage and blossoms made from chenille thread and mauve ribbon-worked rosette flower heads. 

The white net is made from silk which has been coated with a stiffening agent.  This stiffening agent has mad the net brittle and the yarns have cracked in many places resulting in areas of loss and loose areas.  Those loose remains of the net were vulnerable to snagging and abrasion and I was afraid that further pieces would break off and become lost.  Equally, the paper flowers that lay underneath and were formerly protected by the net were now exposed and also at risk of damage or loss through accidentally brushing against them.  As it was, a number of petals had pulled away from the stitches that held them in place and had curled up and become creased and distorted, with several petals and some entire flowers becoming lost. 

To protect the fragile areas I decided to apply an overlay of very fine white Nylon net.  This net does not disturb the aesthetics of the embroidery while at the same time providing protection to the vulnerable net and paper underneath.  Before I could start, however, I had to humidify the paper petals to re-shape them and arrange them in their correct position. For this, I dampened the paper with deionised water applied with a fine paint brush.  Once it was wet, the paper was pliable and creases could be removed.  To apply the net overlay I stitched it in place with small running stitches using a thin white silk organzine thread.  I used a curved needle as the garment had to remain flat on the table (to avoid unnecessary movement).  It’s only now that it has been conserved that the waistcoat is strong enough to go into storage.

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat vulnerable areas before conservation

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat, detail of applying net overlay using silk thread

F2019.21.3 pink waistcoat after application of net overlay - now protected and safe for storage

There was something else that was interesting about the waistcoat: The rear panel is made from tabby woven cotton fabric and the lower section is made of cream silk.  As it is now, the seam allowances are facing outwards and raw edges are visible.  It is not unusual that areas of the garment that aren’t on view are made from less expensive materials and that the stitching might not be as carefully executed as on the visible areas, however, the current configuration and some indication of previous stitch holes suggests that the waistcoat would have had an outer back panel and what is visible currently, is simply the back section of the lining.  There is therefore a strong indication that the waistcoat may have been altered and the original back getting lost in the process.

F2019.21.3  pink waistcoat, back panel


In March 2019, Pupils from Willows High School took part in a Leonardo-inspired project with National Museum Cardiff, University of South Wales and Cardiff University School of Biosciences.

Pupils started by exploring Anatomy with Dr Shiby Stephens, Clinical Anatomist at Cardiff University. They looked at how medical advances in exploring anatomy were rooted in Leonardo’s accuracy and precision in drawing anatomy.

Pupils were then given the opportunity to visit the Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing exhibition. They looked closely, explored drawing techniques and drew from observations.

Finally the pupils worked closely with Gina Carpenter, Visual Art Tutor at University South Wales, to create their own accurate anatomical drawings. They applied drawing techniques like hatching, making 3D forms, and body proportion. They explored da Vinci inventions, and were introduced to the Game Design process. Pupils then storyboarded their own game design using their Leonardo-inspired anatomy and invention drawings.

Funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

Our main job as Explore Volunteers is engaging with visitors in the galleries. At National Museum Cardiff we primarily use three carts; one for natural science, one for evolution, and one for art. The art cart is a particularly fun experience, as it’s more about encouraging visitors to share their own impressions and experiences of art. This cart contains several interesting things, and one in particular is our range of colour filters. 

It seems simple enough at first glance; five transparent filters of different colours. However, when applied to the paintings in our galleries they offer entirely new perspectives on each one. Since a single painting often contains more of a particular colour, viewing it through different filters will produce different results. If you view a painting through a filter of its dominant colour, the effect produced is much more dramatic. Through this visitors can get new insight on how artists constructed their best works.

My go to example for visitors is always Monet’s San Giorgio Maggiore by Twilight in Gallery 16. Viewed without the filters the painting is dramatic enough. On closer inspection you can see that Monet used a strong under-layer of purple for the monastery, with small flecks of purple in the water around it. When viewed through the purple filter, the painting takes on a completely different dynamic. Not only is the monastery more pronounced and the sunset more dramatic, it looks like the cover of a psychedelic rock album. On the other hand, when viewed through the red or orange filters, the already fiery sunset becomes more pronounced. I’ve seen many visitors young and old amazed and impressed after viewing this painting through the filters. 

The filters will affect different paintings in different ways. Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Parisienne (also known as The Blue Lady) is a classic case in point. Since the subject, Henriette Henriot, is dressed entirely in blue, when viewed under the blue filter the colour is amplified. However the other filters can produce interesting results. The area of shading around Henriette is somewhat grey, with elements of blue and yellow, so when viewed under the yellow filter it produces a greenish effect. This happens not just in the outline around Henriette, it also blurs her face, making it appear hazier. The yellow filter also makes the golden frame around the painting a lot brighter. Since The Blue Lady is without a doubt one of the most popular paintings in the museum, it’s good to have visitors looking at her from a different perspective.

A similar effect happens with our other famous resident of Gallery 16, Landscape at Auvers in the Rain by Vincent van Gogh. In speaking to visitors it seems that when viewing the painting they don’t often notice the rain at first. The dashes crisscrossing the canvas are long, thin and faint compared to the landscape behind it. Looking at these lines through a blue filter makes the scene feel more like a rainy day, but when viewed under the yellow filter the lines suddenly become more pronounced. The rain appears to be falling faster when viewed under this filter, with the field in the foreground becoming more pronounced. Many visitors I’ve demonstrated this to have been amazed by the effect.

The filters are a great way for Explore Volunteers to interact with visitors. Not only does it encourage visitors to share their impressions of art, it also allows them to see art in a new way and spot things that may escape them at first glance. There are still many paintings I haven’t tested the filters on yet, so watch this space for more forays in filtering in the near future.

Patterns are such a large part of our day-to-day culture that they can often go unnoticed. They are on the clothes we wear and the furnishings we buy for our homes and offices. The majority have no purpose other than decoration. Many of the patterns seen within our Collections however, are more than simple decoration. They were created to protect the home and its occupants from bad luck brought about by witches, curses and evil spirits. In this series of blogs, we will take a closer look at the purposeful patterns and meaningful marks seen here at St Fagans.

Carpenter’s marks can be seen chiselled into our timber-framed buildings such as Stryd Lydan barn. The frames of timber buildings were created in the carpenter’s yard and then pulled apart for transportation: these marks allow each element of the prefabricated frame to be confidently re-assembled at the build-site.

Atropaic marks (from the Greek word for ‘to ward off’ or ‘turn away’) can take many forms – burn marks on wooden beams, or engravings such as hashed lines and crosses on masonry, flowers drawn with a compass, serpentine lines, squares of alternating colours, or double ‘V’s. They were typically added to homes and agricultural buildings between 1600 and 1950. They were most commonly applied at ‘weak points’ where bad influences could enter homes with ease – doorways, windows and fireplaces.

Entoptic marks (‘things seen within the eye’) are geometric designs that form part of the earliest recorded art in the world. Our Gweithdy gallery contains a wealth of artefacts decorated with these designs. The 6,000 year old wooden beam from Maerdy and the carved stone from Barclodiad y Gawres both feature a serpentine trail. The 3000 year old clay pots known as beakers are decorated with striking alternating geometric designs. The Roman mosaic from Caerwent is composed of a central serpentine knot surrounded by alternating black and white triangles. Likewise, early Christian crosses are carved with interlaced knotwork. These patterns share many elements with the later atropaic marks and could represent the origin of that tradition. For instance, during the 19th and 20th centuries it was common to believe that a pattern drawn with a single unbroken line could fascinate and entrap evil spirits.

The next time you walk past a typical Victorian house, take a moment to consider the path of alternating coloured tiles leading to the doorway. Or when you go to bed, ask yourself why is it that Welsh blankets are so ‘loud’ when you’re trying to get to sleep?  Maybe these too are part of the same tradition of drawing patterns with a purpose.