Amgueddfa Blog

The Valleys Re-Told Project was initially conceived three years ago, when a local resident was overheard saying how she distinctly remembered the heavy snowfall during her pregnancy, whilst chatting with a friend over a Laurence Stephen Lowry painting.

This serendipitous moment was filled with personal nostalgia, could this chance conversation lead to unearthing many other new discussions and explanations about significant artworks that relate to the people and places of the south Wales valleys?

This is the aim of the Valleys Retold Project; a collaboration between communities and schools to generate a new collection which is derived from individual knowledge and interpretations based on existing artworks that truly reflect the heritage and identity of this extraordinary region.

This project is led by the Community Engagement and Learning Officer, Klara Sroka, at National Museum Wales. She is working in partnership with Cyfarthfa Castle Museum and Art Gallery and Cynon Valley Museum and Galley Trust, which will span over 3 years.

Photo of Cyfarthfa Castle & Art Gallery and Cynon Valley Museum

Cyfarthfa Castle & Art Gallery and Cynon Valley Museum

Klara has spent 16 years as an Art and Design educator, assisted Charlotte Church in 2019 in setting up the first democratic school in Wales, and in 2020 completed her master's in fine Art. She is a practicing artist who has a passion in engaging people with art and local Welsh heritage.

In the first year Klara will be recruiting two schools and two community groups to take part in a series of participatory and creative activities with the aim of encouraging meaningful explorations from the existing art collections from all three museums. The confirmed groups for the first year are Lee Gardens Pool Committee, Coleg y Cymoedd, Merthyr Tydfil Historical Society, Dowlais Primary School, and there are various art groups that will also be involved such as the Dowlais Art Group and Painting4Fun. This will be the first co-created project of its kind that encapsulates the voices and histories of so many people from the south Wales valleys.

A collage of images from the Valleys Re-Told project, including a selfie of Klara Sroka

Klara has been busy visiting both museums since late October 2021 and is looking forward to building a strong working partnership and methodology with Cyfarthfa Castle’s lead Chris Parry and Will Tregaskes at Cynon Valley Museum and Art Gallery. 

Over the coming months Klara will be meeting the various groups to personally introduce the project and discuss the next steps. She has also been working on collating a database which documents all known existing artworks related to the valleys from the three museums. 

This will be used to identify the most significant pieces of art by all involved which will become part of this crucial collection. 

There will be an ongoing evaluation to document the engagement and participation of all groups as well as a new understanding of what the social impact of this project may bring to all involved.

In the second year, a similar process will develop, with four new community partnerships that have links to either Merthyr Tydfil or Aberdare in the hope to further evolve and enhance and the existing findings which will become part of a rich accessible resource for future generations.

Logos for the Esmee Fairbairn Collections Fund, Amgueddfa Cymru, Cynin Valley Museum and Cyfarthfa Castle and Art Gallery

This project has been funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Collections Fund.

The past year and a half have certainly been a challenging time for the whole world: the Covid-19 pandemic, the social injustice highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, a climate crisis that feels increasingly apocalyptic. At a time like this, you may well wonder whether art is just an indulgence.

For my colleagues and me at Amgueddfa Cymru, the knowledge that art is important to our well-being and a powerful way to explore and express ideas has been reinforced by our Celf ar y Cyd projects, developed to share the arts across Wales in response to the current health crisis. We have been bringing art into hospitals to support NHS staff and patients during the pandemic, and set up an online magazine Cynfas as a new platform for creative and critical responses to Amgueddfa Cymru’s art collection.

Many of the artworks we have used for these projects were acquired by Amgueddfa Cymru with the support of the charity Art Fund (artfund.org). Art Fund has been helping the Museum acquire works for Wales’s national art collection since 1928 and been a key supporter throughout the period of lockdown as we have continued to work on developing the collection. Here are just a few examples.

Brown and black asymmetric terracotta vase

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Magdalene Odundo, Asymmetric I, 2016, terracotta
Purchased with support from Art Fund and the Derek Williams Trust
© Magdalene Odundo

For Magdalene Odundo, her pots convey a universal human language. Asymmetric I has a strong anthropomorphic character, seemingly alluding to a pregnant female body and promising new life. Drawing on African traditions, she emphasises the power of pots to heal and to commemorate those who have died, making this vessel an eloquent object for the times we are living through.

front of house with two windows covered in branches

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Henri le Sidaner, The House (La Maison), not dated, oil on panel
Bequeathed by Daphne Llewellin of Usk with Art Fund support

One feature of the pandemic has been the comfort people have derived from nature and from living in the moment. Three small late-19th-century French paintings bequeathed through Art Fund are good examples of how artists have been particularly good at this. In The House, Henri Le Sidaner creates the sense of a quiet moment of reflection. We can imagine the artist quickly dabbing paint across his small panel to capture the light reflected off the windows and door of this vine-covered house.

A view of a beach with figures sitting on the sand and cloudy sky

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Delance, Beach with Seated Figures (La côte déserte), 1900, oil on panel
Bequeathed by Daphne Llewellin of Usk with Art Fund support

a painting of a green hill with brown trees and green leaves

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Delance, View from a Hill, Sannois, Seine-et-Oise, 1890s, oil on panel
Bequeathed by Daphne Llewellin of Usk with Art Fund support

In Paul Delance’s Beach with Seated Figures (La côte déserte), we can sense the artist working briskly on a windy beach on the French Atlantic coast to record a bracing seaside excursion with friends. His View from a Hill, Sannois, Seine-et-Oise is another very personal work, thought to have been painted after the death of his wife in 1892 and showing him turning to art and to nature as sources of comfort.

landscape painting of a boat on Padarn Lake with Dolbadarn Castle and Snowdonia mountains

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Sandby, Llanberis Lake, Castle Dol Badern and the Great Mountain Snowdon, about 1771, bodycolour on paper.  Purchased with support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Art Fund and a bequest from Mary Cashmore. Image © Sotheby’s

The landscape of Wales has long been a source of inspiration and pleasure. This is what Paul Sandby found in 1771, when he toured north Wales in the company of the young landowner and art patron Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn. His charming series of 21 views of this journey shows how the pioneering tourists delighted in discovering this dramatic land. One highlight was the outing by boat to Dolbadarn Castle, in the shadow of Yr Wyddfa/Snowdon.

9 black and white photographs of industrial structures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Preparation Plants, 1966-1974, gelatin silver prints
Purchased with support from Art Fund and the Henry Moore Foundation
© Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher

The industrial heritage of Wales has also provided artists with rich subject matter. German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher were best known for their typologies, photographs of a single type of industrial structure organised into grids. Preparation Plants, 1966-1974 comprises nine photographs taken by the Bechers during visits to Britain between 1966 and 1974, including the south Wales collieries of Penallta, Fern Hill, Brittanic and Tower. Now that this whole industrial ecosystem of the Valleys has disappeared, these images feel like a kind of memorial.

art installation in a gallery with pink and yellow walls

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anna Boghiguian, A meteor fell from the sky, 2018, mixed-media installation
Purchased with support from Art Fund and the Derek Williams Trust
Courtesy the artist.

When Cairo-based artist Anna Boghiguian was invited to participate in the Artes Mundi 8 exhibition at National Museum Cardiff, she also immersed herself in the history of Welsh industry. Her installation A meteor fell from the sky creates links between Port Talbot’s Tata Steelworks and the company’s steelworks in India, focusing on the steel workers and their struggle for their rights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015, three-channel video installation
Acquired jointly with Towner Eastbourne with support from Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), the Derek Williams Trust, The Search Foundation through the Contemporary Art Society, and Towner Collection Development Fund
© Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

John Akomfrah’s video installation Vertigo Sea is a powerful reflection on humanity’s abuse of the sea, from the slave trade and modern migration to destruction of the marine environment. It couldn’t be a more relevant work for our times and is on show at National Museum Cardiff in the exhibition The Rules of Art?

 

Andrew Renton
Keeper of Art

Museums and their collections are often rooted in colonialism and racism – Amgueddfa Cymru is no different. 

The Black Lives Matter movement has fast-tracked conversations about the stories that our collections and displays present, calling for us to confront history and challenge present-day injustices.  

We know that we have a lot of work to do to make sure that everyone is represented in our collection and present a more balanced, authentic, and decolonised account of history. To help us with this work, we have developed a Charter for decolonising Amgueddfa Cymru’s collection.

We are recruiting for a Project Manager, Decolonising Collections. The closing date is 13 December - apply now to be part of the de-colonization of the national collections.

Defining 'decolonising'

There is no single definition that explains exactly what decolonising means, so our Charter lays out what it means for Amgueddfa Cymru. It defines 6 areas where we will work collaboratively with communities of relevance on the journey towards decolonising the collection.  

We are currently carrying out an audit of our collection. Our findings to date show that links to slavery are woven into the warp and weft of Welsh society. Objects that need to be decolonised are in every store, on every shelf, and in every gallery.  

Over the next few months, we will begin a programme of community workshops to look more closely at these objects. To give you an idea of the kinds of objects we will be looking at together, here are a few examples from the collection.  

Anglesey penny

A copper penny
A copper penny

Anglesey pennies would have lined many people’s pockets at the end of the 18th century. Millions were minted by the Parys Mining Company using copper from Anglesey’s mines due to a shortage of official small change. Thomas Williams, the active partner of the Parys Mining Company, used them to pay his workers at the copper mines, but they were widely accepted as payment across Britain. The influx of these token coins made small transactions easier and boosted domestic trade. They added to Williams’ wealth, but most of his wealth was made through the copper industry.

Copper from Parys Mountain and other Welsh copper mines was used to make manillas, which were given as payment to African slavers. Welsh copper was used to clad the hulls of slave ships and the Royal Navy’s warships. The copper industry was key to the industrialisation of Wales and made Thomas Williams enormously rich. He fought hard against Abolition because of the slave trade’s contribution to his wealth. The penny illustrates not only the huge wealth accrued by business people because of the slave trade but also how ordinary people across Wales and Britain benefitted too.

Queen Victoria commemorative handkerchief

A red commemorative handkerchief

Souvenir handkerchiefs commemorating royal events, political personalities, and military campaigns were popular keepsakes in the 19th century. They were easy to produce and affordable to buy. This example was made to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897, marking 60 years of her reign. Originally owned by a family from Bridgend, it was donated to the Museum in 1954 and classified under ‘royal celebrations and visits.’ The design includes images of Victoria and her successors – flanked by the Union Jack, the Royal Standard, and White Ensign flags – with the inscription ‘WORLD WIDE EMPIRE / INDIA / WEST INDIES / CANADA / AFRICA / AUSTRALIA / EGYPT / CHINA / 1837-1897 / QUEEN VICTORIA / EMPRESS OF INDIA.’ The handkerchief is a visual representation of the celebratory, unchallenged narratives of Empire that we are finding across the collections.

Coco de mer

A large coco de mer seed

The Natural Science collection contains a wide range of specimens, including rare minerals, medicinal plants and hunting trophies that originated in colonised countries. One example is the coco de mer (Lodoicea maldivica (J.Gemlin)), or double coconut. It is endemic to the Seychelles islands of Praslin and Curieuse. Britain colonised the Seychelles in 1794; the country became independent in 1976.

The coco de mer produces the largest seeds in the world which are prized for their unusual shape. Now rare in the wild, the species is protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) legislation. We have six coco de mer seeds in the collection, including one on permanent display, but little is known about how they were acquired. Although the coco de mer has an important place in the traditions, culture, and mythology of the Seychelles, its cultural significance has never been fully researched or included in the information that the museum holds about the object.

Jan van de Cappelle, A Calm, 1654

A painting of ships by Jan van de Capelle

A Calm (1654) by Jan van de Cappelle, acquired by the Museum in 1994, is described in our Companion Guide as ‘one of the seventeenth century’s greatest marine paintings.’ The work is usually discussed in terms of its quality or importance. But can we look beyond the surface of the painting, to engage with the work as an historical document that can be seen and understood from multiple perspectives? What happens to A Calm after the colonial lens has been removed?

By the seventeenth century, the Netherlands had colonial interests across the globe and was directly involved in the transatlantic slave trade. As well as being an artist, Van de Cappelle was a wealthy Amsterdam merchant who owned a dye-works. This painting would have been seen as a statement of Dutch prosperity and maritime power at a time of rapidly expanding European imperialism. The early history of this painting is unknown, but we know that by the eighteenth century it was in the collection of Sir Lawrence Dundas (1712-1781), a Scottish owner of a Caribbean slave plantation and a significant investor in the East India Company. Do these facts change the way you see the painting?

Coral Lands by H. Stonehewer Cooper, 1880

The front cover of the book 'Coral Lands' by H. Stonehewer Cooper

The Museum’s Library holds a collection of 19th century travel books recounting explorations written from a Western or ‘Eurocentric’ perspective. These books were written for an audience at home and their tone reflects this. It was not uncommon for authors to include references to the advantages and opportunities that could be had in exploiting the natural resources of those places for trade.

An example of this can be found in Coral Lands, written by Herbert Stonehewer Cooper (1847-1906) and published in 1880. Cooper was an English journalist who travelled to the Pacific Islands and wrote about his experiences. In his conclusion he stated that he felt Britain had a duty of care to the inhabitants of the Islands, which he felt should naturally fall into the custody of the British government rather than be “left to chance”. Later editions of this book were titled The Coral Lands of the Pacific: their Peoples and their Products indicating more explicitly his desire to showcase the opportunities for British commerce. Germany had begun to show interest in colonising Samoa, and Cooper’s publication can be seen as an attempt to convince the British to claim it first, just as they had done with Fiji a few years earlier.

One of the activities we will be focusing on during our review of the collections is how the travel writing of the late 19th century contributed towards the impression that Europeans had of those places and their inhabitants and encouraged and reinforced ideas about Empire building.

Next Steps

This initial phase of auditing the collection across Art, History & Archaeology, Natural Sciences and Library disciplines has now produced a body of work that will underpin our collaborative work with communities across Wales to democratise and decolonise the collection.

We hope to better define what we mean by decolonising the museum's collection, to improve community access to and engagement with these objects and inform their use in the future. We will value community knowledge, expertise and lived experience to support a better understanding of the collection through many diverse perspectives.

Look out for more stories and blogs as we continue the research and development phase with our communities and join us on the journey towards decolonising the collection.

In the meantime, if you are interested in applying for a job deconstructing the national collections, we are recruiting for a Project Manager, Decolonising Collections. The closing date is December 13 - apply now.

From my recent musings you may have deduced that my research is centred around a beautiful group of marine bristleworms, which are given the name shovel head worms. Most people will be unfamiliar with shovel head worms, but they may have come across other marine bristleworms such as ragworms and lugworms used as bait by sea fisherman (the latter also being responsible for the casts of sand you see on sandy beaches), or the ornamental feather duster worms that people often keep in aquaria.

King Ragworm (photo by T. Darbyshire)

Lugworm casts and lugworm (photos by K. Mortimer and A. Mackie)

Feather Duster/Fan Worm, Sabella pavonina. Ornamental feather duster worms are often found in aquaria (photo T. Darbyshire)

 

Shovel head worms get their name from their spade shaped heads used for digging in soft sands and muds. They are found all around the world, generally in shallow seas. There are over 70 species known worldwide, but large gaps in our knowledge exist. One such area is the waters around Africa.

 

Back in 2013 I was approached by colleagues from the University Museum of Bergen to collaborate on investigations into shovel head worms off Western Africa. Investigations have shown us that there are at least 20 different species of shovel head worms in these waters, many of which are new to science. Since then we have been working hard to describe the new species, and the first of a series of papers has just been published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. This paper describes five new species of shovel head worms, present from Morocco to Angola.

Shovel head worm, Magelona mackiei named after Andrew Mackie, Honorary Research Fellow at Amgueddfa Cymru

One of the new species is named after Honorary Research Fellow at Amgueddfa Cymru Andrew Mackie (Magelona mackiei), another is named after zoologist and oceanographer Dr Fridtjof Nansen (Magelona nanseni), and a third is named after the Gulf of Guinea (Magelona guineensis) where the species was collected. The remaining two species are named for unique features of the animals: Picta from the Latin for painted, as this species carries distinct colouration (Magelona picta) and fasciata, meaning band, referring to the distinct stripy pattern along the length of the worm (Magelona fasciata)! 

Shovel head worm, Magelona picta, named for its ‘painted’ body

So, why is it important to study marine bristleworms and to describe new species? Marine bristleworms are a major constituent of the animals that live in and on the seabed. As such they are an important food source for many other animals, they are the ‘gardeners of the ocean’ and do similar vital ecological roles that earthworms do on land. They can also tell us a lot about the health and well-being of our oceans. Monitoring how well oceans are doing, depends on accurate identification of the species that live there. Sadly, for many regions even basic knowledge of what species are present is lacking. That’s where we step in to describe the diversity of life and produce identification guides for those who monitor how the seabed may change through pressures like climate change, fishing and dredging etc.

So, what have worms from western Africa got to do with Wales I hear you ask? Research on species outside of Welsh waters is vital to understand the species we have within them. In order to recognise a species new to science in Wales, or indeed and invasive species (which could have huge ramifications for native species) scientists need to have knowledge of species across the globe. This is particularly important given the changing climate and the increased transportation of species around the globe by human activities. We know very little about the distribution ranges of many marine bristleworms, but studies like this give us baseline information from which we can monitor changes as we move forward. Whilst several of the species in this investigation were found in very restricted regions, we have discovered that the European species Magelona alleni, a species first described in Plymouth back in 1958, and a common species here in Welsh waters is found all the way to the Gulf of Guinea, and it isn’t the only one either! We also know that several other species present in Welsh waters are present also off Western Africa, this will be covered in subsequent papers. Whilst we do not know how much the distribution ranges of species may have already been impacted by human activity, this is an important step in enabling the monitoring and protection of our seabed habitats here in Wales. 

Shovel head worm, Magelona fasciata, named for its stripy bands

The National Wool Museum Exhibition of Hope was launched in April 2020. This was of course during the beginning of the national lockdown and I think it is safe to presume that no one could have predicted how successful it would be!

With support from the Ashley Family Foundation and Community Foundation Wales, the aim was to collect enough 20cm or 8inch rainbow coloured squares in order to weave together a substantial rainbow blanket to be displayed in the National Wool Museum, and then eventually at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea.

The idea of the rainbow colours was of course in accordance with the rainbow image, which during the national lockdown had became an important emblem.  The rainbow symbolised light at the end of the tunnel after a dark and uncertain time. The blanket would therefore hopefully become a symbol of peace, hope, community and spirit.

The project surpassed all expectations and collected in the range of 2,000 rainbow square pieces from all over the country. These squares were knitted, felted, woven or crocheted not only from wool, but from cotton, silk and other wonderful fibres that people had to hand.

 

 

Due to the overwhelming response and the restrictions placed on volunteers in meeting and creating one single blanket, a decision was made to make many blankets instead. As a result, museum staff and volunteers began joining the squares from home!

With now many blankets in the making, the project took off to a new level and purpose! Not only were these blankets going to become works of art, they would also be donated to charities, such as the homeless charity 'Crisis'. The project grew further when the South Wales branch of the 'Crisis' Charity shared the exhibition on their Facebook pages and even going as far as providing people with physical packs of wool and instructions.

The project further snowballed when it was featured in Adult Learners Week 2020, when two videos were released of National Wool Museum Craftsperson Non Mitchell showing how to create a felted and woven square.  Finally, maybe the biggest influence was when the Connect to Kindness Art Project, working alongside the Connect to Kindness Campaign and Carmarthenshire Association of Voluntary Services showcased the project in a collage of photos.

When I visited the exhibition recently, what I found fascinating is how, from humble beginnings, the project took on a life of its own and became more than simply helping create a blanket. Along with being beautiful pieces of art that could be enjoyed on their own merit, the blankets would now also help people in a physical and practical way!

In my opinion, what was lovely was how the exhibition has captured the array of positive feelings it had stirred in the volunteers and museum staff who took part in the project. I’m sure this was a somewhat unexpected or underestimated result of the project!

It was clear from the messages and notes received with the blanket squares, that it had brought many a sense of joy, achievement, comfort and a feeling of purpose. The blanket had brought people a sense of belonging and highlighted the feeling of community and what can be achieved when people "pull together" 

This is perhaps the most interesting factor of the project for me - the stories of those creating the squares. I am delighted that the exhibition is reflecting this by showing "stories of the squares" in a video to go along with the exhibition, which will also be available online.

I had the pleasure of watching the video when I visited the exhibition in Drefach Felindre, and it was amazing to hear of the different stories of those behind the squares. There were stories of the project uniting family and friends along with chapels and schools. The exhibition includes an image of rainbow hands by the children of Ysgol Penyboyr.

The effort which some had gone to was also amazing. A big shout out to Elwyna who knitted 350 squares!  One lady had even naturally dyed her wool in different rainbow colours.

One of the stories I found touching was of a lady who had recently lost her mother and who had left her a stash of yarn, mostly from America. Her mother had taught her to crochet and she felt the project was an amazing way to honour her mother's memory.

Crocheting also helped her deal with the grief during this time as she found it therapeutic and relaxing. Others also spoke of the art of crocheting and making the squares as being a therapeutic and relaxing process.

Another heart warming story was of how someone struggled with her memory and was overjoyed to discover that she remembered how to crochet.

These stories and indeed the whole exhibition being so visually bright and beautiful was very uplifting in what is still a fairly uncertain time.  The words of one volunteer perfectly summed up the meaning of the project for me - although we couldn’t "be together, we could work together".

The exhibition can be seen in the National Wool Museum of Wales until mid January 2022. A walk around the exhibition will also be available online. The Exhibition will move to Swansea’s Waterfront Museum in July 2022 - October 2022.