Billy the Seal shows up again in National Museum Wales

Jonathan Brooks-Jones reports on how one of Cardiff’s most famous personalities was restored to public view at National Museum Wales yesterday

Accidentally fished out of the Irish Sea, and donated to Victoria Park’s small zoo in 1912, Billy the Seal quickly became the children’s favourite. When Billy died in 1939 the body was taken to the National Museum Wales where an autopsy discovered that Billy was in fact female.

Her skeleton remained on display at the Museum until 1997, when the decision was made that she go into storage. Around the same time, a life-size statue of Billy, by Cardiff sculptor David Petersen (who also designed and built the beacon for Cardiff’s millennium celebrations), was unveiled at Victoria Park.

Now, after more than ten years in the dark of the Museum’s Globe Works Store at Ocean Way, Billy is being re-exhibited at the Clore Discovery Centre, which opened yesterday at the National Museum in Cathays Park. In the second instalment of his ‘Real Cardiff’ trilogy, Peter Finch writes:

“In the periodic floods that troubled the district when the Ely broke its banks and filled Cowbridge Road with three foot of water Billy is reputed to have regularly escaped. She swam to City Hall, the central fishmarket, the Docks, Roath Park Lake, Thompson’s Park Fountain, the Severn estuary and up the River Taff. Caught everytime and returned to safety. Fishy Evans, the local hand-cart fishmonger from Telford Street, borrowed Billy to sit amongst his cod and hake as an advertisement.”

The Museum’s famed Glanely Discovery Gallery, closed for renovation works, re-opened yesterday having received £160,000 grant from the Clore Duffield Foundation, and has been renamed the Clore Discovery Centre.

Founded in 1964, by the late Sir Charles Clore, one of Britain’s most successful post-war businessmen and one of the most generous philanthropists of his day, the Clore Duffield Foundation is a grant-making organisation which concentrates its support on education, the arts, museum and gallery education, cultural leadership training, health and social care and enhancing Jewish life. They have placed a particular emphasis on supporting children, young people and society’s more vulnerable individuals.

The Glanely Discovery Gallery was an interactive area that encouraged visitors to get closer to the Museum’s collections. It was a hands-on gallery where participants could examine items from the Museum’s collections, as well as participate in a host of special events and workshops.

Now redesigned and refurbished into a new-fangled space, the Clore Discovery Centre promises to be bigger and better, both in size and substance. It will store several new resources to encourage object handling and exploration in more depth than ever before.

Grace Todd, from the Learning Department who has been heavily involved in the new arena along with Jo Langley said:

“Visitors will be able to physically touch the objects on display, comprising items from the museum’s collections, including geological objects, natural history specimens, archaeological artefacts and items highlighting aspects of the art collection.”

The objects will be placed in the discovery drawers, with each one containing handling objects relating to a theme or topic including drawers on fossils from Wales, ceramics, insect classification, Bronze Age axes. There will be a booklet in each one, which will allow the user to further explore and engage with the objects.

On weekends and during school holidays, the Discovery Centre hopes to welcome large numbers of families to handle real museum objects within relaxed surroundings. There is a broad range of weekend programmes, holiday activities, talks and trails planned, as well as workshops for various educational groups, all designed to help stimulate their imagination and with handling as the main focus.

Jonathan Brooks-Jones is sub-editor for ClickonWales

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