Amgueddfa Blog: Community Engagement

 

I am an artist, studying for an MA degree in contemporary design craft, specifically the sculptural potential of prosthetic limbs. My visit to the Mollusca collection occurred after I came across a blog about the interior structure of shells on the museum website, and I made the connection between the interior structure of shells and how 3-D printers work and correct form. On the blog there was a contact number for the Curator of Mollusca, so I contacted Harriet Wood, not knowing what to expect in response.

Photograph of cross-section of 3D printed cube, showing internal supporting structure
Internal structure of 3D printed object © Matthew Day 2017

Looking inside shells - shell sections

When I explained my work on prosthetics to Harriet, and the connections with the interior structure of shells and 3-D printing she seemed very excited and invited me to come down, and also offered to introduce me to the person who runs a photography lab who uses 3-D printing and scanning for the museum.

Going Behind the Scenes

I could not have imagined it could have gone as well as it did. I met Harriet at the information desk of the museum and we then headed behind-the-scenes, where the collection is kept. Walking around the museum to get out back was really nice and modern. It reminded me of an academic journal I read not long before my visit, from the International Journal of the Inclusive Museum: ‘How Digital Artist Engagement Can Function as an Open Innovation Model to Facilitate Audience Encounters with Museum Collections’ in the  by Sarah Younan and Haitham Eid. 

photo showing a large cabinet full of specimen drawers
Some of the archives at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

Behind the scenes at the museum was quite a special environment - generally the general public are not allowed access unless arranged. It was a great privilege to be walking through rooms and rooms full of shells that people over the years have discovered and appreciated for their beauty. What was really fascinating was how the shells had been cut so perfectly. The cut shells looked almost as if this was their natural state – the way they were cut blended in so well with the form of the shell. This is what I wanted to see.

Black and white photograph showing a selection of shell sections
Shell sections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

I was speechless when I saw these collections of shells – especially seeing that part we’re not supposed to see. It was really exciting to see interior structure revealed by the cut, as it added a whole new value to the shells. They really reminded me of work by the the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, whose work I really admire.

black and white photograph showing a single conical shell, cut to show its internal spiral structure
© Matthew Day 2017

We see shells all the time on beaches and they just fascinate me, especially the broken ones which reveal part of the interior. It’s a very imperfect break, very different to the quality of the shell which has been sliced purposely to reveal what is inside. A natural object sculpted by man: I feel that this is what I am drawn to.

3D Scanning: Art and Science

Before examining the shells myself, Harriet offered to take me down to see Jim Turner, where we ended up spending most of my visit because what he did was just very interesting. Jim works in a lab which uses a photography process called “z-Stacking” (or extended depth of field – EDF) which is used extensively in macro photography and photo microscopy.

Jim is also creating an archive of 3D scanned objects for the museum website, where people can interact with scanned objects using VR headsets - bringing a whole new experience to the museum.

I understood what he was doing immediately from my own work. He explained the process and I understood the technicalities. It was a real pleasure to speak to someone who is using 3-D scanning in a different way to me. Jim is using 3D scanning in a way that was described within academic texts I had read - and even though he wasn’t doing anything creative with shells, he was still putting the objects into a context where people could interact with them using digital technology such as VR headsets, and on the web via sketchfab.

'Like being on a beach...'

When we got back to the Mollusca Collection I was able to take my own time and was under no pressure - so I got to have a good look and explored the shells. It was like being on a beach spending hours of exploring all wonderful natural objects.

black and white photograph showing a single conical shell, cut to show its internal spiral structure
© Matthew Day 2017

This visit had an amazing impact on my MA project - and I cannot thank Harriet and Jim enough for their time. This visit also gave me the confidence to approach other museums, such as Worcester Medical Museum, where I worked with a prosthetic socket from their collection. I 3D scanned the socket and, with the inspiration from Harriet’s collection of Mollusca, I created a selection of Sculptural Prosthetic sockets, drawing inspiration from the internal structures of shells, and illustrating sections of the shells that I was most drawn to. 

'A sculpture in its own right': my collection of sculptural prosthetics

Side by side photographs showing a sculptural prosthetic sock and a shell section. The prosthetic is shaped to emulate the internal structure of the shell.
Prototype conceptual prosthetic sock sculpture inspired by National Museum Cardiff's Mollusca collection © Matthew Day 2017

photo showing a black sculptural prosthetic socket with a yellow decoration
Prototype prosthetic sock sculpture inspired by National Museum Cardiff's Mollusca collection © Matthew Day 2017
photo showing a grey sculptural prosthetic socket with a yellow decoration
3D printed, fabric dyed prosthetic sculptural socket, inspired by the Mollusca collections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

photograph showing prosthetic socket with a large yellow decoration shaped like a round shell
3D printed, fabric dyed prosthetic sculptural socket, inspired by the Mollusca collections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

 

What’s next?

My MA is now reaching a climax, and I am starting the final major project module after the summer, which I am very excited about.

For the final part of my studies, I want to take all that I have explored and incorporated into my research to date, and use it to create a concept prosthetic limb which would be wearable, but also a sculpture in its own right – work which is now on track.

3D illustration of a design for a prosthetic leg, with decorations inspired by the internal structure of shells
Concept design of prosthetic sculptural leg, inspired by the Mollusca collections at National Museum Cardiff © Matthew Day 2017

I aim to create a really spectacular prosthetic limb using 3D printing, further incorporating the shell-inspired aesthetics you see in this blog.

More of my work can be found on my website: Matthew Day Sculpture

 

This is one of our fabulous, weird and wonderful stores at St Fagans National Museum of History. It’s chockablock full of objects. We’re still collecting new things, but we have to be very selective in what we take in. We just don’t have the space!

Store at St Fagans National Museum of History

You can come across all sorts of things in a social history store like this one, from grandfather clocks to prosthetic limbs.

When a colleague of mine first went into this store and was told to ‘mind the mantrap’ she thought it was a joke. It turns out there really was a mantrap lurking at the end of a dark corridor!

For a long time I’ve known that the majority of museum collections are hidden away in storage, that what you see in galleries is only a small portion, but I had no idea to what extent until I started working here.

Of the 5 million objects we have across seven museums ranging from vintage motorcars, moon rock, world famous paintings, Iron Age slave chains, to a public urinal. How many objects are on display?

Only 0.2% of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales’ collections are on display.

So if there is a specific object you want to see at any of our museums, check that it’s on display first, and if it’s not, you can always make an appointment to view it. Thanks to players of People’s Postcode Lottery, we have had funding so we can enhance records and add images for you to view in Collections Online which will be up and running in the autumn. Keep an eye out for behind the scenes store tours with the curators and conservators who look after our collections, these can be really enlightening!

We’re looking after the collections, on your behalf. We hope you enjoy exploring them as much as we do.

People's Postcode Lottery Logo

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, heavy industry. Lately jobs in tourism, modern industry and students coming to study at our universities make us a melting pot of cultures. Indeed, my grand-father came to Swansea from the Faroe Islands (Danish) and my wife’s grand-father came from Holland, both to work on the docks around 1910. As economic migrants – they came here to earn more money and have a better life, they were not refugees.

They stayed, married Welsh girls and raised families. The street I grew up on, Prince of Wales Road in the Hafod, Swansea there lived people from Italy, Ireland, Scotland, Poland and England, and the bottom of the street was known as ‘Jews Row’ where Jews from all over the world lived. As children we just thought this was normal and every street in the UK was just like ours.

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 last 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.

The top ten are: Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Uganda, Congo and Chad.

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 in Kenya with around 200,000 people living in it!

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 they 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 £36.95 a week - £5.28 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 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. From March 2017, cases can be reviewed after five years to see if the threat to the person is still ongoing or if it is possible to be returned to their country of origin.

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.

At the end of 2016 there were 2,997 asylum seekers in Wales, 0.09% of the population.

There are times in life when a problem and its solution come together seamlessly.

The problem – one which every museum faces: cryptic causes of deterioration of stored objects.

The solution: investigation using the latest chemical analyses.

One step better: to combine this analysis with the mission of museums – inspiring people – and undertake the investigative work with full public engagement.

Like most museums, National Museum Cardiff has the task of slowing down corrosion to preserve collections. Think of your family silver tarnishing and you know what I am talking about. Multiply this by hundreds of thousands of metal objects in our collection and you understand the herculean task we face when we come to work every day.

Like most museums, we do not have much equipment to undertake complex chemical analyses. So when we want to investigate the magnitude of potential sources of corrosive airborne substances in our collection stores, we often work in partnership with academic institutions.

SEAHA is an initiative between three universities with industry and heritage partners to improve our understanding of heritage science. Heritage science is multi disciplinary and includes experts with chemistry, imaging, IT, engineering, architecture and other backgrounds. One of SEAHA’s amazing facilities is a fully equipped mobile laboratory. We submitted an application last year for the mobile lab to come to Cardiff which, amazingly (there is much demand for this vehicle), was approved. Last week, staff and postgraduate students from University College London, one of SEAHA’s academic partners, visited National Museum Cardiff.

The Mobile Heritage Lab was at the museum for two days. During this time, we assessed environments and pollutants in collection stores and in public galleries. We undertook this work with full involvement of our museum visitors. The mobile lab was parked next to the museum entrance where we encouraged our visitors to explore the on-board analytical equipment. UCL staff and students were at hand to explain how science helps us preserve heritage collections, for example how UV fluorescence is used to explore paintings.

We received a visit by A-level students from Fitzalan High School in Cardiff in the morning. The students were especially interested in chemistry. After a quick introduction, we gave the students an ultra-fine particle counter to produce a pollutant map of the public galleries at the museum. The students used this equipment to measure ultra-fine dust inside and outside the museum. We are still analysing these data, but the early results indicate that the museum’s air filtration system is doing a good job at keeping dust out of the building. This is important because the gases associated with ultra-fine particles (for example, SO2) can damage paper and other organic materials.

We also measured concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOC) in collection stores and found that levels were higher inside drawers in the Entomology collection than in the store itself; this is important in the context of entomological pin corrosion. We managed to confirm that work we undertook recently to reduce the levels of VOC in the museum’s Mineralogy store had been effective and successful. In addition, we used a thermal imaging camera to check whether relatively high temperatures in a display case are caused by heating pipes in the wall behind the case, or by in-case lighting.

The Mobile Heritage Lab’s visit provided us with an opportunity to answer some important questions about the way we care for the museum’s collections. At the same time, we managed to teach students the practical applications of investigative science and analytical chemistry. Lastly, we spoke to many museum visitors about the role played by science in the preservation of heritage collections. We are extremely grateful for the fruitful partnership with SEAHA and hope to collaborate on additional projects in the near future. For example, there are some interesting questions surrounding the deposition of different types of dust which we discussed over a beer on Thursday evening. Watch this space as multi-disciplinary heritage science is becoming ever more important for answering questions of collection care and preservation. Museums are best placed to working in partnerships on important scientific questions while achieving public impact by explaining to a wider audience how science works.

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

Regular visitors might recognise Arnie the guide dog. He helped us to develop National Museum Cardiff's audio description tours, visited our Quentin Blake exhibition and even blogged about his Museum adventures! Arnie has recently retired from guiding duties and has handed his harness over to Uri, an enthusiastic young pup just out of training.

Ever the cultured canine, Arnie wanted to make sure Uri gets to sample the best of the National Museum but for a young pup the first visit can be scary. He has written so has written a few words to help Uri - and other guide dogs - take their first steps into the Museum.

Arnie's advice

"The National Museum Cardiff is a very old, impressive building that towers into the sky. It looks similar to other buildings in the area, but you'll know it because it has a big set of steps in front and a giant ball on top called the dome. The road outside is usually busy with traffic so your humans will need your help to cross. On either side of the front steps is some grass. You can 'spend' here but make sure you indicate to your humans that there's a step down to the grass. They might be safer letting you on a long lead and staying on the pavement.

You may feel overwhelmed as you stand at the bottom of the steps looking up at the building. I still get queasy. The stone ceiling looks like it's being held up by stilts (Mum calls them 'Grecian columns'), but I've been assured they're safe. The steps up to the Museum are in two flights, with brass rails zig-zagging across. You will need to guide your owner to the next rail between each flight. If you're feeling adventurous you might want to use the magic glass box that lifts you into the air instead. This is to the left of the steps, through a gate. Once inside, look out for the large silver button to the left - this opens the door.

Once you reach the top of the stairs you will need to guide your owner through the massive brass doorway. Then you will come to a set of glass doors that open automatically. They are much safer for us guide dogs than the old revolving type - less danger of getting squished! Be careful as you enter the Main Hall - your paws may slip on the marble-effect floor. You will hear lots of noises echoing and reverberating because the ceiling is so high. Guide your owner to the reception desk, which is straight ahead across the hall.

And then the best bit. You will soon be hit by a whiff of cakes and biscuits from the coffee shop to your left. Drooling is inevitable, but stay calm. This is the first of many temptations you will encounter. The Museum is full of animals you can't chase, bones you can't eat, and rocks you can't spend a penny on. Enjoy!"  

We wish Arnie the very best in his retirement and look forward to welcoming Uri and other guide dogs to the Museum. Our next Audio Description tour is on the 10th August. Cultured canines and Guide Dogs in training welcome!