Amgueddfa Blog: Casgliadau ac Ymchwil

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.

A penny and a brooch

Two rare objects have recently been kindly donated to Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales by metal detectorist, Pete Anning. One is a silver penny of King Aethelraed II (978-1013, also known as ‘The Unready’), probably minted in Gloucester during the 990s. The other is a fragment of a 7th or 8th century decorated copper alloy penannular brooch. Both objects were found in the same area in the Vale of Glamorgan.

The objects are unfortunately broken, but that does not lessen their archaeological importance, and the coin has been designated a find of national Welsh importance by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

Dr Mark Redknap, Head of Collections and Research in the museum’s History and Archaeology Department, said of the brooch fragment:

“Any discovery of Early Medieval metalwork has special significance as we know so little - compared with the later Medieval period – about fashions and styles circulating around Wales. The surviving terminal is decorated with a recessed panel, ridges imitating filigree, and a central setting for a glass or amber stud. It belongs to a style of brooch characteristic of Western Britain.”

As neither of the objects are classed as treasure under the 1996 Treasure Act, they are legally the property of the finder and landowner, but luckily for AC-NMW, Pete generously decided to donate them to the museum’s collection.

Deciding to donate

Pete has been detecting for two years, and this is not the first time he has given away his finds:

“I think the most exciting thing I ever found was a Bronze Age axe head that I found after my friend (who is also a farmer) gave me call to say they had been clearing out some ditches and I might want to have a go in the spoil. After recording the find with Mark Lodwick (PAS Co-ordinator for Wales) I gave it to the farm and it now has pride of place on their mantelpiece. The axe had been there for over 3000 years and it didn’t seem right to take it away.”

When Pete found out that his penny and brooch fragments, as Welsh examples of Anglo-Saxon and Early Medieval objects, were important and rare, he decided that, “it was only right that the finds should be donated to the museum. Whether it’s 3000 years old or 30 years old, it all once had a purpose or meaning. Everything has a story.”

Once an object enters a museum collection, those stories can be told by archaeologists and other researchers, and the object will be conserved and looked after for future generations.

The value of donations

Donations are valued by museums as they do not always have a fund to purchase objects for their collections and have to rely on Friends groups or applications to funding bodies such as the Art Fund. In Wales, the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories project has been using its National Lottery funding to acquire treasure and some PAS-recorded objects for national and local collections since 2015, but this source will soon be coming to an end.

So, in the words of Dr Redknap, “We’re extremely grateful to Pete for his generous donation to the national collection.”

But whether finders donate, sell or keep their objects, Pete encourages everybody to get their finds recorded with PAS: “I had no idea what the early medieval brooch fragment was until Mark Lodwick saw it. I knew it was old…but that was it. If you’re not sure check – otherwise you could be throwing away some invaluable ancient history!”

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 years ago the chemical works BP Baglan Bay called me and said they were clearing out the offices as the site was closing and would I like to see if the museum wanted any objects for our Modern Industry collection?

I couldn’t wait to go and have a look, and as there was quite a lot to go through I took our museum van in the hope of a few accessions.

There were lots of photographs, some in frames, some big aerial photos too. There were overalls, hats and jackets with logos on them – just the sort of things that tell a great story when exhibited for displays.

There were tools specific to the industry and other bits and pieces like signs and gauges.

I loaded a few things in the van to take back to the museum so I could go through them to decide what we would like to keep and what should be returned.

But as I was about to leave they called me back and asked if I wanted the paintings? I hadn’t noticed these as they were covered in bubble wrap and stood against a wall.

One of the paintings was quite big, about 4’6”x 6’ (1.5 x 2.1m) and I couldn’t see the subject for the wrapping. The other was much smaller about 2’ x 2’6” (0.6 x 0.76m). I was told the bigger one was an oil painting of Baglan Bay at Night and the smaller one a watercolour of a power station. I put them in the van, got the paperwork signed and left for our stores in Nantgarw where I could spread things out and examine them properly.

About a week went by and I still hadn’t looked at the paintings as I had been going through all the other objects first.

When I did take the bubble wrap off I was really surprised by the quality of both paintings. The oil painting was really striking and the BP staff had told me that it had hung in the office since the 1960s.

I looked for a painter’s signature and then the real surprise hit me! In the bottom corner was ‘Vicari’.

Bells rang deep in my head, where did I know that name from? A quick internet search answered that. The richest living artist in the world. The official Gulf War artist. Artist to the Saudi Royal family. And born in Port Talbot. This fitted my collecting policy perfectly, being an industrial scene in Wales painted by a Welsh artist. The only snag from my point of view was that it could be quite valuable and BP might want to keep it.

I contacted them straight away and told them about the artist and its possible value. One of their directors, David, called me and told me that they were happy it would be going to the National Museum of Wales and he couldn’t think of a better place for it.  This generosity meant that we could save a national treasure for future generations.

So far we had treated the painting as if it were a genuine ‘Vicari’, but was it really?

I contacted the ‘Vicari’ website and sent them an image of our painting asking them if they could confirm if Andrew had painted it.

I checked my email every day. No replies. How else could we confirm this if they didn’t get back to us?

One sunny morning about three weeks later my phone rang. I could tell from the number it was someone in France calling. This was not unusual as we have many visits from French schools and as my schoolboy French is just about good enough to get by, my number was very often given to schools as a contact.

After answering with who I was, a deep, rich voice said:

‘Ah, Andrew here, I hear you’ve found the lost Vicari’

I couldn’t believe it! Andrew Vicari calling me from his home in France! To say I was flabbergasted is an understatement!

Andrew told me he had painted Baglan in the early 1960s and was really glad of the commission at the time (when he wasn’t so well known). We spoke for about half an hour about all sorts of things and he went on to tell me an incredible  story from 1966.

Andrew had painted a picture that was to be auctioned for the Aberfan Disaster Appeal and went along to the auction in Cardiff. Before it got underway, two burly men approached Andrew and said someone needed to talk to him in private. He was shown to a room and waiting there were two more men in sharp suits, looking a bit ‘dodgy’ (his words). These two told him they wanted to buy the painting, and asked how much did he want for it? He told them that it wasn’t his to sell as he’d given to the appeal and it was out of his hands. They kept on that they wanted it and he needed to get it for them. They were getting more and more insistent. After repeating that he couldn’t a number of times, they finally left, to Andrew’s relief.

It turned out that they were the Kray twins! He laughed ‘I’m one of the few people to have said ‘no’ to the Kray twins and lived to tell the tale!’

He told me that he was very happy his painting was going to be in the National collection and that he would do anything for Wales!

We never had the chance to speak again; sadly Andrew died in Swansea, in 2016 aged 84. It’s lovely that we have such incredible paintings to remember him by.

This story happened in 2009 and the painting has been in our stores in Nantgarw where is has been conserved and a new glazed frame made. We’ve been waiting for a chance to exhibit it and finally it will happen.

You can see the painting as part of an Andrew Vicari exhibition from 13th July to 3rd November 2019 at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea.

“Codi i’r Wyneb - Brought to the Surface” is a project on freshwater snails led by the Museum’s Department of Natural Sciences, supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund. Since our last blog in January, our project has grown from its wellspring in the collections to spill over into the outside world.

This, being midsummer, is pond-dipping season. Fieldcraft is so important to being a good naturalist, and also a good curator. No matter how good the collections, ID guides or apps, there is no substitute for finding things in their natural environment first-hand. So far we have identified and recorded snails from over 50 water bodies in South Wales alone, often with the help of local people and volunteers. As well as being good education for us, this has helped provide data and specimens from less well-studied areas, such as the lakes at Blaengarw, and the Neath Canal at Tonna, and the River Ely. We’ve also followed up a number of historical records to see whether species are still present. In a neat symbiosis, Alice Jones from Cardiff University has also been helping us out as part of her search for snail parasites and their microscopic predators. Lest anyone fear this is a Cymrocentric project, we’ve also been collecting in South-west England, and are heading East soon!

Back at National Museum Cardiff and with the help of the Exhibitions team, we installed our display in the Insight Gallery in time for the Easter school holidays. (In fact, all the displays in Insight have recently been refreshed, so it’s well worth visiting if you haven’t for a while). It features a variety of showcasing the diversity and importance of freshwater snails. To help bring the small shells of the Welsh species to life, we made magnified models of the living animals, approximately 1000 times actual size. These are shown alongside some grapefruit-sized tropical Apple Snails (the world’s largest freshwater snails), and their eye-catching bright pink eggs. The display also includes a mini-diorama of a British river, and a slideshow of images of the project’s progress. One thing which proved surprisingly hard to obtain (in Cardiff!) was an authentic-looking miniature of a sheep, so we made our own. The sheep is there to illustrate the life-cycle of the liver fluke - a big problem for British agriculture, yet one that hinges on tiny freshwater snails.

Since our last update we’ve taken part in public events including “Museums After Dark” and “Fossils from the Swamp”, and even appeared on the Radio Wales Science Café programme. The big one for us was our first Snail Day training course in late April, where we put our draft identification keys to the test. Held at Gwent Wildlife Trust’s Magor Marsh reserve, we are very grateful to the 8 members of the public prepared to be our guinea pigs, while learning as much about the 40 species as we could fit into a day. Our second Snail Day, at the “Aqualab” of the National Botanical Gardens in Carmarthenshire, was also a fully-booked success with thanks to the infectiously enthusiastic Paul Smith and our stalwart volunteer Mike Tynen, who helped amaze some visiting cub scouts by juggling a leech. The fish-free lakes at the Gardens have a huge biomass of snails!

Keen to join in? Our third Snail Day is on the 29th June, at the RSPB’s Ynys Hir reserve near Machynlleth, once used as the base for the BBC’s Springwatch. If you’d like to take part, please email harry.powell@museumwales.ac.uk. On Twitter, follow @CardiffCurator for the latest updates.