Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales


During past decades changes in land use over large areas have resulted in a significant loss of natural grasslands and meadow flowers, and thus food resources and habitats for insects. The number of pollinator species has declined dramatically and this poses a threat to the pollination of commercial crops.

The Welsh Government’s Action Plan for Pollinators has resulted in a number of initiatives by local authorities and projects by charitable organisations to promote actions for increasing the areas that can sustain meadow habitats. In many places, including public parks and road verges, wild flower areas have been established to improve local environmental quality and provide suitable habitats for pollinators. This would hopefully lead to an increase in biodiversity in Wales, with more diverse plant and animal communities.

To support these initiatives and efforts by local authorities the Department of Natural Sciences of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales offers workshops utilising its collections and knowledge. The Botany Section held a meadow plants identification workshop for Torfaen County Borough Council staff. The day began with an introduction to meadow plants, meadow ecology and pollination. This was followed by a hands-on session looking at flowers commonly found in meadows with the aid of microscopes. The workshop was lively and interesting and catered for a range of botanical experience.

To help identification we provided an information pack for over 60 meadow plant species. It contains descriptions and illustrations of species and information about their ecology and distribution in the British Isles.

The workshop ended with a visit to New Grove Meadows in Monmouthshire which are owned and managed by the Gwent Wildlife Trust, and which are very good examples of local, well-established and species rich wildflower meadows.

Amgueddfa Cymru’s sites support diverse Welsh habitats, which include wildflower meadows. Recently, we have transformed a corner of our most urban site, Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd-National Museum Cardiff, into a meadow and a place wildlife can thrive. This Urban Meadow and City Bees project aims to draw attention to the need for green spaces for pollinators in urban areas. The meadow is not only a good source of nectar and pollen for the bees occupying the three beehives on the Museum roof, but is also an outside learning area to inspire new meadow advocates.

Over the last few months Kate Congdon from Cardiff and the Vale College has been working on resources for ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) students. In a previous blog I discussed how these had developed and been trialled at the college. On Thursday 8th September we had around 300 students and 9 tutors come to St Fagans to try out the resources here on site. The resources that were trialled were for: Bryn Eryr Iron Age Roundhouses, Rhyd y Car, Gwalia Stores, St Teilo’s Church, and the Melin Bompren Corn Mill.

Shadowing some of the groups I was able to see how the students worked with the resources. All of the students were engaged with the resources and were keen to ask questions if they were unsure of the answer. By asking questions the resources were not only testing their reading ability but encouraging them to practice their spoken English. A big thank you goes to the front of house members of staff who were excellent at answering the questions in a simple and easy to understand manner.

As well as the printed versions of the resources we also trialled an iBook version of the Rhyd y Car resource which I adapted from Kate’s Rhyd y Car resource. The students that trialled this enjoyed the opportunity to use a different medium. The students appreciated that the iBook provided immediate feedback on the questions and used the iBook together with the printed version to check their answers. The only downside of the iBooks is that it is not compatible with android tablets which the college have. Therefore an alternative android version should be created to make the electronic resource more accessible.

The feedback from the students will be used to improve the resources and a finalised version will be completed in the coming months. Once they are completed we can then upload them to our website for future ESOL groups to use.

My artistic practice is multi-disciplinary and includes film, performance, design and engagement with communities. Using an investigative approach my work responds to journeys and geographical locations. Previous projects have included, an odyssey across Wales (Cerbyd), the life, death and afterlife of an elephant in Swansea and a hunt for the Beast of Bala.

From November 2015 to April 2016 I was chosen as artist in residence at Parc le Breos, Neolithic chambered tomb. During the residency I used engagement activities and film making to explore how the exposure and freedom to explore the Parc le Breos site through a host-guest scenario could give agency to the individuals involved.

Focusing on the themes of shelter, survival, hunting and rituals, I arranged a programme of regular activity for Community First groups to work with myself and local practitioners in the area sharing their expertise. Partners included Dryad, Forest Schools, Gower Unearthed and Guerrilla Archaeology who created experiences including shelter building, fire making and story telling. Over 1000 people took part in the project, many of whom had never visited Parc le Breos and the Gower before.

Amgueddfa Cymru provided a vital resource throughout - this included visiting the Museum stores with Jody Deacon, Curator: Prehistoric Archaeology (Collections and Access) to film material relating to Neolithic sites in Wales.

I was also given access to the taxidermy, scenes, models and soundtrack from the Natural History displays. This was particularly special for me; as a Cardiff boy I remember the mammoth from my school visits to the museum. The opportunity for me to return to this remarkable beast was not only nostalgic but added a sinister dimension to the project by questioning the unharmonious co-existence of the neolithic period, my own childhood memories and the present day.

A range of academics and specialists have given their time for audio interviews to be used within the film of the project including Professor Alasdair Whittle, Research Professor in Archaeology, Dr Jacqui Mulville, Reader in BioArchaeology and Roy Church, Manager of the Gower Heritage Centre. Audio was also gathered from story telling developed with the English and Maths Group based at Phoenix Centre in Townhill.

Since April I have been editing together footage and audio for my film The Chambered Cairn. The film itself opens up a variety of possibilities, suggesting that not everything is as it seems and highlighting the inevitability of change. It also hints at the hidden or unknown aspects of human development. For example, for approximately 2 million years prior to the advent of agriculture, gatherer-hunters enjoyed excellent health, social and sexual equality, very light workloads, plenty of leisure time and freedom from any form of government. The Chambered Cairn explores our evolution and migration to the British Isles and the impact of human development from hunter gathers to agriculture and domestication.

The launch of film will be on Saturday 17 September between 12.00 – 3.30pm at Gower Heritage Centre. The film will be screened in La Charrette, a 23 seated cinema, built by Gwyn Phillips, an electrician who fell in love with the movies in his youth while working as a projectionist, and began showing films in 1953 in his back garden in Gorseinon.

All are welcome.

The Chambered Cairn
La Charrette, Gower Heritage Centre
Sat 17 Sept 12-3.30pm

This project was funded and supported by Cadw, The Gower Landscape Partnership, Arts Council for Wales, Welsh Government, Heritage Lottery Fund, National Trust, Natural Resources Wales, City and County of Swansea, Cardiff University’s Guerrilla Archaeology, Amgueddfa Cymru and Gower Heritage Centre.


On 16 September, 616 years years ago, Owain Glyndŵr was proclaimed Prince of Wales by his followers at his court in Glyndyfrdwy. His rebellion between 1400 and 1409 was the last of many attempts to free Wales from the shackles of English rule. His home was Sycharth, an 11th century motte and bailey castle in Llansilin, Denbighshire. The poet Iolo Goch writing before the rebellion said that it contained nine grand halls all roofed in slate, and called it the ‘fairest timber court’. The estate featured fish ponds, an orchard, vineyard, horses, deer, peacocks, and his staff only drank the finest Oswestry ale.  Having found Sycharth empty, on May 1403 it was burned to the ground by Henry of Monmouth (later to become Henry V). After that, his forces burned Glyndyfrdwy too.

In 1927 Alderman Edward Hughes from Wrexham wrote to Sir Cyril Fox, head of the newly opened National Museum of Wales. In his letter he noted that about 30 years previously the agent for Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn (the then owner of Sycharth) was draining the moat and found a substantial oak timber. This was carefully removed and taken to Llangedwyn Hall by Lady Williams-Wynn for safe keeping. In 1924 Alderman Hughes asked Lady Williams-Wynn if he could use the beam in the new Memorial Hall being built in Llansilin. The great oak beam was too long for its intended use as a window lintel and a section was cut off the end, with great difficulty. Alderman Hughes donated this remaining section to the Museum.

The timber was recently cleaned and photographed ready for display at the National Eisteddfod in Abergavenny. There was no sign of burning on the timber as one would expect, but it may have formed part of a bridge over the moat that was not subject to burning. It is 50cm tall, and 27cm x 36cm in thickness (20” x 11” x 14”). The substantial mortice cut into it is 27cm tall, and 14cm in width (11” x 6”).

The display garnered some interest, and Richard Suggett from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales contacted me with more information. Some years after the construction of Llansilin Hall the south-westerly facing beam was removed due to rot, and placed in a skip. It was rescued by Mr Dick Hughes, a local garage owner, and was later presented back to the hall. The timber is now displayed in a glass case, but is only 75cm in length.

Archaeological investigations have revealed the presence of an 18m (43’) hall at Sycharth, but not the nine mentioned by Iolo Goch.  If we want to support the claim that the timber formed part of Sycharth, the next step would be to try and date both portions scientifically. However, not all samples are suitable for dating by dendrochronology, and after the photographs were inspected, it appears that the Sycharth timber may not be willing yield accurate dates without a fight.

Museums are outgoing institutions. Our doors are open to anyone, regardless of age, level of ability, ethnicity, and so on. We are happy to welcome everyone and will do our best to accommodate people’s needs and interests. Many museums are free because we do not want low income to be a barrier for visiting. AC-NMW’s Conservation Department has recently stepped up its outreach programme. We organise regular Open Days (the next one is on 25th October), talks, behind-the-scenes tours, schools activities etc – preservation of the museum’s objects is an important part of what the museum does and quite rightly forms part of the museum’s public offer. So much for museums.

Now for the visitors. Why do people visit museums? Because they have travelled here and are trying to get a sense of place. Because they want to spend some quality time with friends/family. Because they have a specific interest. There are many reasons, most of which indicate that visiting museums is a leisure activity that reflects what people are interested in and how they like to spend their spare time, just like reading, cycling or watching box sets on TV. Jehra Patrick summarised in her blog some of the motivational identities of museum visitors compiled by John H. Falk. She also suggested that to get people in the doors, museums should stop telling them why they should come and start asking them why they do

Last year we asked visitors whether they would like conservators to be more visible in public spaces. The feedback was a resounding and emphatic ‘YES!’ by 90% of our visitors. We heard the shout and started scheduling more of our regular maintenance work during public opening hours both at St Fagans and in the city centre. Again we checked with the visitors and, low and behold, they said they would like to see conservation in action even more often. Visitors are insatiable, one might conclude. Or are we really that good? Either way, it was all good news, the new way of working was a success, we congratulated ourselves, lots of shoulder padding going on etc.

Now a dear friend asked recently: ‘do visitors like to talk to museum staff about Conservation, or do they just like to talk to staff?’ Jaw drops. Had we not asked visitors whether they would like to speak to conservators? And had they not told us that they did? Well, yeah – but what we didn’t ask was whether it mattered that they spoke to conservators. Or anyone else.

It is certainly clear from experience (I am now straying from hard data into anecdotal evidence) that many museums visitors like to talk. When we work in the galleries or historic houses there are endless opportunities for chatting. We, as staff and volunteers, make it as obvious as possible that we are approachable and happy to talk. Many visitors use the opportunity to do just that: ask questions about our work, about the objects on display, or tell us about a moth infestation they once had in a carpet. The latter does not tend to happen randomly – pest management is one aspect of our work.

However, there is certainly a difference between being a member of museum staff (visitor perception) and being a highly skilled individual with years of experience who is fully subscribed to the museum’s policy of inclusivity, enthusiastically raring to inform visitors about the museum’s efforts in heritage preservation (conservator perception). It is interesting to note that, when working in the galleries, conservation is not the only thing we talk about. We also find ourselves giving directions, answering questions about objects on display, telling people about other cultural venues in South Wales. And – for reasons of liability – avoiding giving advice on moth infestations in domestic carpets.

Does it need a conservator to answer general enquiries? Of course not, and the museum already has additional staff for just that sort of thing. Should a conservator therefore refuse to answer such questions? Again, of course they should not – courtesy and politeness alone should be reason enough to attempt to answer any question.

Visitors cannot be expected to distinguish between different members of museum staff or volunteers. I, as a conservator, have to be aware of this and be prepared to answer any question asked of me as best I can to create experiences that fulfil visitor needs. It is also clear that visitors have expectations of their museum experience that often differ from what staff believe the offer is. The route to success for me, as member of staff, is therefore to be flexible and acknowledge the visitor’s diverse interests and needs. And to ask the right questions.

Find out more about care of collections and Preventive Conservation at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here