Amgueddfa Blog: Amgueddfeydd, Arddangosfeydd a Digwyddiadau

Each week, hundreds of people will walk through the front doors of the National Museum Cardiff. Yet despite visiting the exhibitions on display, many will be oblivious to what goes on in the background. Conducting a work experience placement at the museum gave us a rare insight into how much work and effort goes on behind closed doors.

 

With the intention of creating a video for the Saving Treasures, Telling Stories project, we were taken on a tour around the archaeology department on our first day of placement. We were fortunate to be shown around the stores, where many remarkable items were kept for preservation and research. Some of the items we viewed were Roman and prehistoric pots, vases and burial urns, which allowed us to explore how communities and cultures operated thousands of years ago.

 

The following day we attended Cyfarthfa Museum in Merthyr Tydfil, which is to acquire a hoard of five Roman Denarii, with thanks to funding from the Saving Treasures project. We filmed museum staff and the finders of the hoard, and heard about its significance. It was great to see the enthusiasm of the metal detectorists who discovered the hoard, and how proud they were of their achievement.

 

We spent the next few days editing the video together back at the University of South Wales campus. This proved to be a difficult job, as there were so many great shots to choose from, so it was difficult to decide which to cut out. However, the staff were always on hand to answer any questions we had and help out where possible.

 

Working at the National Museum Cardiff was a wonderful experience, and we were able to appreciate just how much work goes on behind closed doors to create the exhibitions we see. This work and research has helped us to understand history and past cultures in greater detail, and we would like to thank all the staff for their friendliness and a great week.

This St David’s Day, Friday 1 March, the Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion will present a unique eighteenth-century painting, Poor Taff, to the museum. The Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion has kindly offered Poor Taff to Amgueddfa Cymru and the people of Wales, following the closure of its former home, the Welsh Girls’ School (later St. David’s School) founded by the Society in the eighteenth century.

This is one of four oil paintings, possibly commissioned by Welsh Societies, telling the tale of the Welsh satirical character, Shon-Ap-Morgan, who was widely known as “Poor Taff”, and his journey to London. Shon was intent on avenging the  “rabble” English who entertained themselves by annually hanging ragged effigies of Welsh people above the streets on St David’s Day. Things did not go as planned for Shon, many versions of the story claim that the “demon drink” was responsible for his many misadventures.

He is portrayed in the painting with his attributes that include the goat he rides, leeks, cheese and herring. Some versions show him with his wife, Unnafred [Winifred] Shon. This caricature probably stems from a combination of early anti-Welsh prints and a popular Meissen figurine that originally poked fun at the tailor of the Saxony factory’s director, Count Brühl. The figurine shows the tailor riding a goat with a female companion. English factories were quick to copy this popular design that became known as “the Welsh tailor and his wife”.

This image of Poor Taff shows that he self-styled himself as a gentleman. However, he was so poverty-stricken he had to ride a goat rather than a horse. Whereas today, his diet of leeks, cheese and fish seem a healthy choice, they were seen then as further symbols of his poverty. These satirical anti-Welsh symbols were promoted in London’s popular print culture that was convenient for anti-Welsh sentiments. Some English artists used this satire on prominent public figures such as Watkin Williams Wynn and the Prince of Wales (later George IV).

Later versions of the prints however, began to praise Wales and Welsh people, condemning the previous English abuse. As a result, Shon-Ap-Morgan, or Poor Taff, became an affectionate symbol of Welsh national identity. For this reason the painting may have been commissioned by a London-based Welsh society. The stereotype that we see in this painting eventually gave way to a more benevolent Welsh icon created by Augusta Hall (Lady Llanofer) of the Welsh lady, “Blodwen”, with her tall black hat and shawl.

This week marks the launch of the exhibition ‘People and Plants’ in the Insight Gallery, National Museum Cardiff and accompanying public report ‘Sharing Stories, Sharing Collections.’

The exhibition and report are outcomes of a collaborative placement between the Sustainable Places Research Institute and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales funded by the National Environment Research Council Valuing Nature Programme.

During the placement, Dr. Poppy Nicol (Sustainable Places Research Institute) spent four months within the Natural Science Department at National Museum Cardiff. Poppy worked with Principal Curator Dr. Heather Pardoe and other members of the Botany team to investigate the Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection and its potential role it can play in supporting, valuing and understanding of biodiversity. As part of the placement, Poppy and Heather conducted a series of workshops with community groups and interviews, with the aim of exploring how future activities associated with the economic botany collection can further societal understanding and valuing of biodiversity and address the Museum’s duty of well-being.  

Drawing upon the findings of the placement, the exhibition offers insight into the Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection and the important role of plants in society.  

Health, well-being and plants

The Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection includes over 5,500 specimens of medicinal plants, food products, fibres, seeds, gums, dyes and resins, most of which were acquired between the nineteenth century and present day. The selected specimens in the ‘People and Plants’ exhibition highlights the role of plants in supporting the health and well-being of past, present and future generations.

Plant-based Remedies: old and new

The economic botany collection contains over 700 medicinal plant specimens including a Materia Medica (donated by Professor Terence Turner, Cardiff School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences). The exhibition features a range of plant specimens used medicinally – including quinine (used for treating malaria), star anise (containing a compound used for treating influenza) and senna pods (a traditional laxative).

It also features a contemporary example of a plant-based compound for medicinal purposes – the daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus). Although toxic if consumed raw, it contains galantamine which is used in the treatment of the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease.

Biocultural diversity: heritage grains

The exhibition also showcases some of the specimens within the Museum’s economic botany seed collection - which contains over 2,700 seed specimens. The collection includes a range of wheat, barley, oat and rye varieties acquired from the Welsh Plant Breeding Station. Hen Gymro, an old wheat variety affectionately known as “Old Man’s Beard” was cultivated in South Wales into the 1920’s, said to have thrived in South Wales. With predicted changing climates and the urgent need for more ecological growing approaches, perhaps some of these old grain varieties might be of value for future farmers and growers. The exhibition highlights the importance of safeguarding biodiversity – of both wild and cultivated crops and wild species.

Sharing Stories, Sharing Collections

The accompanying report to the exhibition, ‘Sharing Stories, Sharing Collections’ by Poppy, highlights how bio-cultural collections have the potential to support public understanding and valuing of biodiversity. It suggests recent legislation in the form of the Well Being of Future Generations Act (Wales) (2015) presents opportunity for Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales to become a global innovator in terms of curating bio-cultural collections.

The report identifies clear interest in the Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection amongst the public. It identifies a number of opportunities for innovation in bio-cultural and economic botany collections including research-driven curation; inter-generational learning programmes; and, innovative and participatory approaches to digitisation. Inter-disciplinary collaboration with other centres of learning particularly present great opportunities to share and enhance the value of the collection. Such innovations will improve the role of the collection in supporting public valuing and understanding of biodiversity and the health and well-being of future generations.

In an era where biodiversity is being eroded, bio-cultural collections have a crucial societal role of developing understanding and valuing of biodiversity through raising public awareness of the crucial role of plants in supporting livelihoods, supporting health and well-being, maintaining ecosystem services and adapting to global environmental change.

You can see the People & Plants exhibition at National Museum Cardiff until Sunday 17 March.

Read more about the start of the project in this February 2018 blog post.

Over the past few months the museum has been working closely with colleagues at the beautiful Oriel y Parc gallery in St Davids to bring together an exhibition celebrating Wales ‘Year of the Sea’ called ‘Coast’.

The exhibition fuses artworks and natural science specimens specially selected by the Oriel y Parc team from Amgueddfa Cymru’s collections, and displays these alongside some of the recent museum activisim work of Amgueddfa Cymru’s 'Youth Forum Group' highlighting the issues of plastic pollution.

The multidisciplinary nature of the display explores how the sea has inspired artists for centuries, highlights the biodiversity of the Pembrokeshire coast, and how plastic now impacts on the environment and our everyday life.

Centre piece to the art works is Jan van de Cappelle’s masterpiece ‘A Calm’, surrounded by sea and coast inspired paintings from a selection of other artists including Cedric Morris and John Kyffin Williams. Amongst these works are specimens from the natural science collections capturing the richness of Pembrokeshire's wildlife, including the skeleton of a leatherback turtle found dead on Skomer Island in 1988.

The turtle had in the past been on display at the visitor centre on Skomer, but was removed a number of years back when the buildings on the Island underwent redevelopment. In need of some repairs and cleaning, the specimen became an excellent project for one of our conservation student placements at the museum, Owen Lazzari. The end result has enabled us to bring the specimen back to Pembrokeshire to form one of the centrepieces of the exhibition.

Other highlights from the natural science collections include one of our historic Blaschka glass models dating from the late 1800s, and a Goose barnacle covered builder's helmet found off the Welsh Coast.

Further information can be found on Oriel y Parc's website: https://www.pembrokeshirecoast.wales

 

Hi, I’m Thea, a sixth form student from Shropshire who decided to create this short video as part of my work experience at the National Museum Cardiff.

I had heard about Who Decides? before I became involved in the exhibition, so I was very eager to find out more. After working with the public opinion cards, speaking to the people involved in the museum and doing some short interviews, I created an animation that I thought would best reflect the aims of exhibition and the feedback it had received.

I am passionate about art and against the idea that art and museums are ‘elitist’ or should be for the ‘privileged’ rather than the majority, so I wanted to focus on this issue in the video.

Working with the Wallich

The exhibition itself was incredibly eye opening for me; the museum had decided to work with the charity The Wallich to involve people with experience of homlessness in the process of designing and creating the exhibit and gives the public the chance to choose some of the artwork on display. I haven't seen an exhibition that has ever taken this kind of approach, so I found it intriguing to see how others reacted to the idea.

I hope this refreshing approach to curation will be an archetype for future exhibits and museums because it challenges what we usually connote with galleries and exhibits and hopefully encourages more people to visit exhibitions and museums.

Who Decides? is on show at National Museum Cardiff until 2 September 2018. You can also contribute to Who Decides? by voting for your favourite work to be ‘released’ from the store and placed on public display.