St Fagans’ £20m makeover

David Anderson reveals how Amgueddfa Werin Cymru is being transformed to become the national museum for Wales’s history

David Anderson is Director General of Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

Each of the constituent museums of the National Museum of Wales has an important story to tell about the country’s past. Although built two millennia ago, the Roman fort at Caerleon remains one of the largest military complexes ever seen in Wales. The National Wool Museum in Dre-Fach Felindre records a product that was once a substantial part of the national economy. The National Slate Museum in Llanberis, Big Pit in Blaenafon, and the Maritime and Industrial Museum in Swansea explore the major industries of Wales of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Each of these museums represents the identities of peoples and communities in their area, but the museum that explicitly seeks to do this for Wales more than any other, is Amgueddfa Werin Cymru, the national museum at St Fagans.

Amgueddfa Werin Cymru was inspired in part by the world’s first folk museum at Skansen in Stockholm, which opened in 1891. Skansen was not alone. Across northern Europe, but particularly in Scandinavia, the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the establishment of a number of national folk museums. Their establishment was often a consequence of an upsurge in nationalism, combined with a desire to preserve traditional ways of life in the face of the social changes brought by industrialisation. The establishment of these museums as public cultural spaces was seen at the time as an important contribution to the creation of a modern nation.

From the day it opened in 1948, St Fagans has had a special place in the hearts of many people in Wales. Probably uniquely in Europe, then and now, it was a national museum created with the explicit goal of sustaining a language then in decline.

Dr Iorwerth Peate, the Museum’s first curator and a prominent author, poet and nationalist, saw the Museum playing  a crucial role in the education of the Welsh people. It was to be “a home for new life” and a “means for visiting every movement in our land into national identity”.

Peate’s vision of Welshness was an idealised version of the Montgomeryshire society in which he grew up: rural, Welsh-speaking, non-conformist, and Liberal in politics. Yet, even at the time of the 1841 Census, Wales had more people employed in industry than in agriculture. That Peate’s vision had such an influence beyond that minority of the population it described is testimony to its enduring emotional appeal.

From the 1960s onwards St Fagans has been subjected to increasing scrutiny. The young social historians who emerged at that time, predominantly from the Welsh Valleys, were mostly secular, socialist and internationalist in outlook – and, significantly, English speaking. For them, St Fagans was an anachronism.

The Museum itself was aware that society around it was changing. It responded to the de-industrialising of many Welsh communities by collecting buildings related to the country’s industrial past. The erection in 1985 of a terrace of iron-workers houses from Rhyd-y-car in Merthyr Tydfil was the first manifestation of this new strategy. Later, the growth of immigrant communities, particularly in the Cardiff area, also prompted the Museum to challenge still further Peate’s original singular concept of Welsh identity. The galleries at St Fagans now  recognise that identities are not fixed, and there are many versions of Welshness.

Following an extensive public consultation exercise held between 2002 and 2005, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales launched its Vision for the Future – to become “a world-class museum for learning”. The creation of a national museum for history, intended to transform our understanding of Welsh history, is a key component of this Vision. Building on the traditional strength of the collections of social history, the site will bring new perspectives from a range of disciplines including industrial history, social geography, ecology and above all archaeology. As part of this, the Museum’s archaeological collections will be relocated from the Cathays Park site to St Fagans.

Open air museums have been regarded by some in the museum profession, the great majority of whom work in glass case museums, with suspicion.  They have been accused of being purveyors of nostalgia and romanticism, and altogether too accessible and entertaining relics of an earlier, less sophisticated era of museology.

I believe the opposite to be true. Museums like Skansen and St Fagans were in advance of their time when founded, and continue to say something important today.

Many museums have a very narrow definition of culture, one based on analysis of physical objects often from the perspective of a single discipline. Such analysis is valuable, even essential, as a stage towards the development of cultural meanings in society, but it is not sufficient. Interpretations based on material culture alone also tend to omit those vital dimensions of culture and thought that cannot easily be encoded in objects. This model of museums sees culture as being outside ourselves, often as the product of the work of experts.

St Fagans has always offered a radically different, and in many ways more contemporary, definition of culture. It is one in which culture is a living process. As the ethnomusicologist, the late Professor John Blacking, once wrote, “culture exists only in performance”.

If this is the case, then human interaction and active personal engagement are an essential part of culture and should be at the core of the work of museums. This approach also is more democratic, respecting as it does the part played by the whole population in cultural development. Visitors, and the communities to which they belong, are holders and contributors of culture, not just passive consumers.

We estimate that creating a new St Fagans will cost around £20 million. The Welsh Government has already made a major commitment by pledging £5 million, but the project can only go ahead if funding can be obtained from a variety of other sources, including the Heritage Lottery Fund. The benefit for Wales will be that, for the first time, the country will have a museum that

  • Surveys the whole past of Wales, from earliest times to the present.
  • Actively engages a wider public.
  • Combines the strengths of the two main traditions of museum work to create a new model of museology that integrates a number of different disciplines.

Achieving this transformation is a huge intellectual challenge at many levels – the very opposite of dumbing down.

Working in partnership with CADW, the National Library of Wales, and many other local and national organisations, we plan that St Fagans will be a gateway to other historic sites across the country and, we hope, the starting point for visitors of a new journey of discovery.

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