Amgueddfa Blog: Amgueddfeydd, Arddangosfeydd a Digwyddiadau

Written by Caitlin Jenkins, MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University

I’m Caitlin, an MSc Conservation Practice student from Cardiff University and I have just finished my summer placement at National Museum Cardiff. I’ve been working with conservator Julian Carter on the natural history collections, with the last five weeks focused on preparations for the museum’s summer exhibition, Snakes!

The first week saw me elbow deep in jars full of snakes, as we worked our way through getting 32 fluid preserved specimens ready for display. Although the snakes had already undergone previous treatment, many were very old and in need of attention. After checking the jars’ condition, we added or replaced conservation fluid as required.

Many snakes needed to be rehomed in new jars. Some preservationists use wires or mountings, but we chose to follow the natural shape of the snake and its flexibility to guide its positioning within the jar. My favourite of the specimens was a grass snake that had been preserved in the act of eating a toad (with one leg dangling from its mouth...poor toad!)

I was also able to assist with preserving a new addition to this collection – a boa constrictor named Aeron. After formaldehyde injections and several fluid changes, we needed to find an extra-large shiny new jar, because he was over a metre long. Aeron has now bagged a starring role as the centrepiece of his display case. I really enjoyed this experience, and it has given me a fantastic insight into the complexities and potential of fluid preservation.

My other major project was the treatment of three snake models destined to be part of a large interactive exhibit within Snakes! Two were painted plaster models of a rattle snake and a king cobra. These incredibly detailed antiques were perhaps cast from real specimens. The third was a moulded rubber and polystyrene grass snake model from the 1960s. The models had survived in remarkably good condition given their age, they just needed a little ‘zhoosh’ to make them display-ready. Light brushing and swabbing with water and mild detergent was all that was needed to remove ingrained dust. Any loose or flaking areas were consolidated to ensure that they didn’t become further detached from the model.

Nevertheless, small elements were missing from each model. The grass snake model posed a specific conservation risk, as rubber and plastics can become unstable over time. Its tongue became fragmented during cleaning and unfortunately proved too badly degraded to reattach. Using photographs of the real-life snake species as a guide, I fashioned replacement tongues for this and the king cobra model from a strong plant-based fibre known as Japanese tissue. They were secured in place and painted to blend them into the jaw area. Being able to see the immediate improvement after each snake ‘facelift’ was very satisfying - this took cosmetic surgery to a whole new level!

Finally, the finished models were settled into their new home for the summer – a large interactive exhibit affectionately dubbed ‘the snake pit’. I’d become so immersed in their treatment over the last five weeks that I was kind of sad to see them go – but it was satisfying to see them looking their best and used in the spirit for which they were originally created.

I’ve really enjoyed working on Snakes! from preparation to completed display – it’s been a fantastic experience. If you are in the vicinity of the museum, pleasssse pay them a visit.

The exhibition runs till 15th September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future. Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition, there will be a series of bookable handling sessions throughout the summer as well as a Venom themed Open Day in August. To find out more about all of this, go to our What's On page.

On the 22nd June our new summer exhibition opened. This family friendly exhibition runs until September and delves into the captivating life of snakes, helping you to find out more about these extraordinary and misunderstood creatures. We are hoping to feature more detailed stories about all of the things mentioned below in a series of blogs running through July and August so keep tuning in to find out more.

Snakes is a touring exhibition created by a company called Blue Tokay with added bonus content generated by our team. Work began on bringing together all of this way back in September 2018 and since then we have been busy researching, writing text and preparing some great specimens for you all to enjoy.

The main exhibition covers all aspects of the lives of snakes, so we focused our efforts on highlighting our collections at the museum. We hold over 3.5 million natural history specimens here, and as you can imagine, not everything is on display. We hold a small collection of 500 reptiles from all over the world. These are mostly preserved in alcohol and stored in jars, but we also have skeletons, skins and eggs. We chose 32 of our best snakes to go out on display. Each of these were carefully rehoused and conserved as many of the specimens were old and in need of work.

But it’s not just snakes in jars. We have also displayed some fantastic casts of 49 million years old fossil snakes, and 3D printed the vertebra of Titanoboa, the largest snake that ever lived.

One of my favourite features of the exhibit are our objects dealing with snake folklore and mythology, featuring a 13th century manuscript showing how snakes were used in medicinal remedies. Also some fantastic ‘snakestones’, actually fossil ammonites with snake heads carved on to the top.

You may also recognise the statue of Perseus that has long been displayed in our main hall. Perseus is enjoying his new surroundings, with Medusa’s snake ridden head looking positively sinister with the new lighting.

The exhibition features six live snakes and as I’m sure you can imagine, bringing live animals into a museum requires a LOT of preparation. We have done a great deal of work to ensure that their time with us is spent in 5 star accommodation. Their ‘vivaria’ are purpose built to ensure our snakes are well cared for, including warm and cool spots, as well as a water feature for a bathe. We have a fantastic (and very brave) set of staff who are volunteering their time to looking after them including changing water bowls, and clearing up their poo! Dr Rhys Jones (Cardiff University) has been fantastic with helping throughout this whole process, including coming in every week to feed them. The snakes are all provided by a company called Bugs n Stuff, you can see a video of them installing the live snakes here.

Finally, our fantastic learning department, design team and technicians have worked hard to add some fun activities for all to enjoy. Our Spot the Snake pit features, amongst other things, two beautifully conserved models of a cobra and a rattlesnake that date back to 1903, and a real freeze-dried adder! We also have a snake expert quiz, a world map of snakes, and drawing and colouring stations. Volunteers will be in the gallery periodically across the summer with snake handling specimens including a real full length skin of an African Rock Python.

The exhibition runs till 15th September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future. Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition, there will be a series of bookable handling sessions throughout the summer as well as a Venom themed Open Day in August. To find out more about all of this, go to our What's On page.

 

A few months ago, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. I was invited to work at Amgueddfa Cymru as an artist in residence and asked to organise a project to celebrate 10 years of the volunteer programme. The project has consisted of a series of creative workshops with volunteers at sites across the country, which have fed into the creation of a celebratory artwork.

My name’s Robin Bonar-Law, I’m a self-taught artist and graphic design graduate of Falmouth University. From the time of my graduation up until my residency, I have been working in the catering industry so my artistic outlet has been primarily restricted to latte art. The creative industries are incredibly competitive and coming from a low-income family I have often felt stifled by a lack of social mobility. I take portrait commissions and enter competitions when I can but over the coming years, I would like to make the rewarding leap into self-employment by becoming a freelance mural artist.

Early this year I applied to an artist opportunity based at St Fagan’s. After a thoroughly exciting interview process, I was asked to join the team and given an open brief, ‘Create an artwork that is inspired by the volunteers and showcases the amazing contribution they have given to the museum. The process should also include a series of creative workshops with volunteers.’ With over 900 volunteers this year alone this was no small task, nonetheless, overflowing with unbounded enthusiasm and a sense of freedom (from the coffee shop) I got to work planning.

The project is split into two main components; the workshops and the final artwork. I love drawing and wanted to run a series of ‘mark-making’ workshops that help re-introduce the volunteers to the idea of drawing as something that’s fun and relaxing. By normalising and simplifying drawing through a series of games and activities, I hoped to make it less daunting and something relaxing that they may enjoy doing brief moments of spare time.

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As well as allowing me to teach the volunteers new drawing techniques the workshops served as a time for the volunteers to teach me about their roles and experiences at the museum. From the beginning of the project, I have wanted to create an authentic artwork that represents the true collaborative spirit of the volunteer workforce and the best way to do that is to meet them and get their personal input. Visiting the sites and talking to members of staff was another valuable resource.

I have met such a large number of enthusiastic and happy volunteers, they are all equally passionate and have truly enriched my experience. The workshops have been far more rewarding than I could ever have expected, I hope the volunteers enjoyed them as much as I did.

My favourite part of any project like this is the final, hands-on crafting of a design, but there’s no point rushing into it without a strong design process as a foundation. Alongside the workshops, I started amassing a large pool of research to help shape the direction of the artwork. I gathered inspiration from celebratory imagery such as friendly society banners, religious artworks, Flags, political/social murals etc. I also furthered my knowledge of Welsh craft and traditions by meeting with curators, visiting volunteers outside of workshops and making use of the information on display to the public. I wanted to create a final piece with mulitple layers of complexity; representing the wildly diverse range of roles, having that celebratory feel and being reminiscent of the traditional craft that imbues each site.

I am in the final stages of the design process and putting the finishing touches to my artwork. Once complete, the modular, hanging banner inspired artwork will be transformed into a majestic, megalithic and meaningful mural adorning the walls of Tŷ Gwyrdd (the new volunteer hub) and made into a digital print for each of the 7 museums around Wales. It will also be made into tote bags and given to each of the volunteers. From the very beginning, I have wanted to create a purposeful artwork that rejuvenates and enriches the volunteer spaces, fostering an environment that helps individuals find a sense of well-being, pride and identity. I can’t wait to show you all the finished product.

I am incredibly grateful for the museum and all the staff that have given me this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.


Robin's placement was funded by the Hands on Heritage youth project at Amgueddfa Cymru, which is supported through the National Lottery Heritage Funds ‘Kick the Dust’

 

Locust swarms have for centuries destroyed crops and threatened food supplies across large parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. This threat continues today - a recent plague in Madagascar destroyed 2.3 million hectares of crops. Controlling it took three years and cost million.

Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria) swarms can move hundreds of miles within a vast ‘invasion area’ that can span dozens of countries, and even continents. To better understand and control such plagues of locusts the British founded the Anti-Locust Research Centre (ALRC) in the 1920s.

The ALRC took the lead in monitoring, studying, forecasting and controlling locust swarms. To do this they had to work with different experts including entomologists (insect specialists), cartographers (map makers), toxicologists (experts on poison), explorers, photographers, the military and local people.

For decades the ALRC gathered information on locusts worldwide. This now forms an incredible archive of thousands of documents, maps and photographs held at the Natural History Museum in London, and a collection of over 70,000 locust specimens that are now part of the collections here at Amgueddfa Cymru.

Our new display ‘Locust War’ reunites the archive and specimens to rediscover the remarkable work of the ALRC and the challenges it faced to understand and control the desert locust.

The exhibition is the work of a collaborative research project led by academics from the University of Warwick, University of Portsmouth and Glasgow School of Art, and supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

‘Locust War’ is part of the displays in our InSight Gallery, and runs until the 16th September 2019.

Eitem arall yn y gyfres Lleisiau o’r Archifau o Archif Sain, Sain Ffagan Amgueddfa Werin Cymru. Mae’r gyfres hon yn cyd-redeg â gweithgareddau a digwyddiadau amaethyddol yr Amgueddfa. Ffermwyr oedd y siaradwyr, a oedd, fel arfer, wedi byw yn yr un ardal trwy gydol eu hoes. Mae’r disgrifiadau, y profiadau, yr atgofion, y lleisiau a’r acenion yn wreiddiol ac unigryw, o wahanol ardaloedd, ac o wahanol gyfnodau.

I gyd-fynd gyda’r wyna yn Llwyn-yr-eos, fferm yr Amgueddfa, dyma ddarn o recordiad o Dan Theophilus, Allt yr erw, Rhandir-mwyn, a recordiwyd ym mis Gorffennaf 1975, pan yn 65 oed. Mae’n sôn am wahanol agweddau ar wyna: gofalu am y defaid; delio gyda thrafferthion ac afiechydon; mabwysiadu oen; marcio clustiau; a throi’r defaid a’r wyn i’r mynydd.