A Brief History of St Fagans

‘[The task] was not to create a museum which preserved the dead past under glass but one which uses the past to link up with the present to provide a strong foundation and a healthy environment for the future of their people.’

(Iorwerth C. Peate, 1948).

St Fagans has a special place in the hearts of the people of Wales. It first opened its gates to the public on 1 July 1948. This was the UK’s first national open air museum. It was radical in its day because it reflected the everyday lives of ordinary people. Since then, it has become Wales’ most popular heritage visitor attraction.

The head of St Fagans from 1948-1971 was Dr Iorwerth C. Peate. He was fired by the example of Scandinavian open air museums.

Photo: © Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales

The site for the new museum at St Fagans was generously donated to the nation by the Earl of Plymouth.

Photo: © Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales

Up to the 1940s : Laying Foundations

St Fagans’ collections have their roots in the ‘Welsh Bygones’ gallery which opened at the National Museum in Cathays Park in 1926. It included a Welsh farmhouse kitchen.

Iorwerth Peate was encouraged to develop plans for a Welsh Folk Museum by Sir Cyril Fox. Fox was an archaeologist and Director of the National Museum of Wales from 1926-1948.

1950s : Building

A much emptier parkland than now. Much of the site was cleared of woodland to make space for re-erecting historic buildings. Cilewent farmhouse was opened in 1959.

Photo: © Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales

One of the Museum’s historic buildings team re-erecting Esgair Moel woollen mill in 1951. The early years of the museum concentrated on developing the open-air section. The people of Wales raised £50,000 towards the work.

Photo: © Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales

Iorwerth Peate towering head and shoulders over others attending the opening of Penrhiw Chapel, in 1956. The first reconstructed building on the site was Stryt Lydan Barn, opened in 1951.

Photo: © Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales

Making underthatch mats for the roof of Kennixton farmhouse, a building which has fond memories for generations of visitors. It was opened in 1955.

1960s : Recording

A folk museum must illustrate not only the material side of life and culture, but also the activities of the mind and spirit… It is not only a matter of great importance but also of extreme urgency.

Extract from Prof G J Williams’ radio appeal on behalf of the Welsh Folk Museum, 1958.

The number of Welsh speakers declined dramatically after the war. Following an appeal for funds in 1958, the museum’s recording of oral traditions and dialects began in earnest.

Staff were appointed to record dialect speech, folk tales and folk songs, as well as traditional customs. They travelled the length and breadth of Wales in this Land Rover and caravan.

Alongside collecting fast-disappearing oral traditions, the work of translocating examples of traditional buildings continued. Llainfadyn, the slate quarryman’s cottage, was one of four historic buildings opened at St Fagans in the 1960s.

Photo: © Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales

1970s : Developing

Architect's drawing of a proposed new Main Building for the Welsh Folk Museum.

By the early 1970s, the Museum had new exhibition galleries, offices and workrooms. The staff are photographed here in front of the new Administrative Building, in 1971.

Three new galleries were opened: the Gallery of Material Culture in 1970; the Agricultural Gallery in 1974; and the Costume gallery in 1976.

The Museum had also begun to research and record traditional foods. The photo shows a demonstration of traditional recipes in Kennixton farmhouse in 1972.

Wood turning at St Fagans in 1977. From its beginning, the Museum has placed great importance on preserving craft skills.

1980s : Changing Direction

By the 1980s, Wales’ industrial communities were as threatened as the rural way of life had been in the 1940s. A change of direction was needed. In 1987, the Rhyd-y-car ironworkers’ cottages from Merthyr Tudful were relocated to St Fagans.

Original residents of the cottages talking to Museum directors at Rhyd-y-car’s opening. For the first time, periods within living memory were being displayed at the museum.

The 1980s was a productive time for re-erecting historic buildings – one for almost each year of the decade! Among them was Derwen Bakery, from Aberystwyth.

In 1984, Maestir School was opened. It has enabled generations of children to learn about the past in an immersive way.

1990s : Expanding, Learning

The opening of the enormously popular Celtic Village at St Fagans in 1992. This was the first time the Museum had created buildings from archaeological evidence.

Until 1993, St Fagans did not have a house which illustrated the life of the rural poor. Nantwallter cottage was the mud-built home of a farm labourer and his family.

Other buildings from industrial areas followed Rhyd-y-car. Gwalia Stores, a shop which had served the mining community of Ogmore Vale, was opened at St Fagans in 1991.

Oakdale Workmen's Institute prior to removal to St Fagans National Museum of History, c. 1989

Oakdale Workmen’s Institute in its original location. It was opened at St Fagans in 1995. The same year, the English name of the museum was changed to Museum of Welsh Life.

2000s : Experimenting

Wales in the 2000s was very different from that of the 1950s. Creating Oriel 1 allowed us to experiment with ways of presenting a more inclusive picture of Wales.

For the first time, the Museum worked with community groups to create exhibition elements. Here is the first group to contribute to the Beliefs display.

2007 saw the unveiling of the Museum’s most ambitious project to date: the church of St Teilo’s as it would have looked before Henry VIII’s Reformation in 1532.

The Museum learned an important lesson while recreating St Teilo’s Church. Visitors were interested in the process of creating as well as the finished product.

2010s : Making History

St Fagans is now undergoing the biggest redevelopment in its history. From now on, St Fagans will tell the stories of people in Wales over 240,000 years. We are bringing together the national collections of history and archaeology to create exciting new galleries.

Making History at St Fagans