Amgueddfa Blog: Cyffredinol

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.

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.

Were you amongst among the record number of people who enjoyed our recent ‘Tim Peake’ and ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ exhibitions at National Museum Cardiff? Did you realise that, while you were in the public galleries, there were workers with hard hats and power tools working to improve the building?

We are currently undertaking a large amount of maintenance works in the museum. We do this in such a way to minimise the disturbance to our visitors as much as possible. We want you to enjoy your experience at the museum and be inspired. During the coming months, however, scaffolding will be erected around parts of the building. We are also going to get a temporary over roof on the oldest part of the museum.

Given that this part of the building was opened as long ago as April 1927 by King George V it is now due some tender loving care. Owing to the ravages of time, the roof has developed a few leaks which we are going to repair this year. This also involves having to close some galleries temporarily, for example the Ceramics and Photography galleries. We do apologise for the inconvenience, but these closures are necessary to allow us to undertake the work on the roof and associated internal works.

Galleries will reopen refreshed in the Autumn of 2019, once the works are completed. The brilliant news is that we will be able to present exhibitions without having to worry about a leaking roof. Associated electrical rewiring will also reduce the fire risk in the museum.

Other works we are undertaking - unbeknown to most people as these are happening in our basement - are further electrical works and substantial improvements to our air conditioning systems. This includes the installation of new air conditioning equipment to replace old equipment which will make the museum much more environmentally sustainable.

We are undertaking these works, with kind support of Welsh Government, to protect the Welsh national collection. We constantly strive to improve the way we care for the three million objects housed at National Museum Cardiff. The collections allow us to refresh displays regularly and put on exhibitions with new themes – check out our new ‘People and Plants’ exhibition of the museum’s economic Botany collection. Collections are also used for research, study, teaching, commemoration and many other functions.

Hence, there are many reasons why we would want to do our best to preserve the collections as best we can. The maintenance works during the coming months will greatly assist us with our collection care and, if these occasionally impact on our public spaces, we do ask that you bear with us – the works are temporary but the benefits will be long-lasting.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter. Follow the progress of the maintenance works during the coming months in 2019 on Twitter using the hashtag #museumcare.

 

Every river has its source, starting small then gathering pace. Our project on freshwater snails is doing just that as we tumble into 2019. “Codi i’r Wyneb – Brought to the Surface is a 2-year project to create a new guide to the freshwater snails of Britain and Ireland, supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund. Where better to begin than with Amgueddfa Cymru’s world class Mollusca collections?

This month we are joined by three new faces: our Project Officer, Harry Powell, and volunteers Jelena Nefjodova and Mike Tynen. Harry studied biology and ecology at Plymouth University, and is a former volunteer here himself. Mike spent many years with the Cheshire Wildlife Trust and Jelena is a current student at Cardiff University. All four of us have gotten stuck in to the snail collections here, of which we’ll say more in a moment.

To date over 1000 other people, and several organisations, have already engaged with Brought to the Surface. Our travelling display was especially popular at Swansea Science Festival in November 2018, where many members of the public took the chance to get up close (up to 50X magnification!) with British and foreign freshwater snails on our stand. We also showcased specimens at two conferences at the Museum, Unknown Wales (Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales) and at the Wales Biodiversity Partnership.

These displays will evolve as the project does, but also on the way is a more permanent exhibit at the Museum, now in the design stages. This gives us an excuse to feature a photo by our partner Hannah Shaw, of the magnificent Llangloffan Fen near Fishguard, Pembrokeshire. We’ve been looking for a lush landscape, captured in summer, to make a good backdrop for the display. It’s also a reminder that, having passed the solstice, outdoor snail activities are not too far away.

Summer will also bring our series of “Snail Day” training and key testing events around Wales. Our partner Mike Dobson has been especially quick of the mark in helping draft a comprehensive key to try out with the public at these. We are fortunate in having such a range of snail specimens from the Museum to use in these activities, but it will also be fun for people to have a go at finding and identifying their own. After all, the ideal key is one that should allow a total beginner to identify the very first snail they find…

And so back to the collections, the foundation of this kind of biology and a unique asset of museums. Harry, Mike and Jelena have been helping review and curate what we already have, and others have kindly been sending specimens from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland for our project. Particular thanks to our partner Martin Willing from the Conchological Society, who is hot on the trail of Britain’s more obscure freshwater snail species. Our Twitter account @CardiffCurator will feature many of these over the next couple of years with the hashtag #FreshwaterSnailoftheFortnight. The photos, descriptions and DNA sequences from 150 years’ worth of snail study will all be the basis for our eventual Field Studies Council publication.

We’ll report again as more people, places and snails join us on our journey.

Cultural heritage collections need a friendly home. 'Friendly' means: a building that protects the collection from the elements – wind, sun and rain. Conservators worry a lot - and rightly so - about pigments fading when they are exposed to light, about stuffed animals being eaten by insect pests, about wartime medals corroding because of the presence of air pollutants. But it’s no good having a fantastic pest management system if the roof leaks. Getting the basics right makes the job of the conservator an awful lot easier and is better for the collection.

Like many museums up and down the country, National Museum Cardiff is housed in a historic building. The museum contains 30 public galleries and 50 collection stores which accommodate almost 3 million objects. This is only part of the national heritage collection of Wales and arguably something we want to protect for the benefit of current and future generations.

But being in a historic building, as beautiful as it is, has its challenges. Much of the building infrastructure is aging and needs modernising. Our roof needs some tlc. Our air conditioning systems are so old, there is nobody left in the museum who was around when they were first installed. And the electrics in parts of the building are not far from receiving a birthday telegram from Her Majesty the Queen.

All of those issues are a problem not just for visitors and staff, but also for the collections. Therefore, we have started modernising our museum building. In the past few years we already had parts of our roof replaced. Less publicly visible was the recent replacement of the electrical infrastructure in the west wing. We are now in the process of undertaking much more work to improve the building.

Some of this work will happen behind closed doors: replacement of our chillers and humidifiers with new, modern and efficient technology, making the museum leaner and greener. Other work will be more obvious to our visitors, including works to the roof of our south wing. Various works will require the temporary closure of some of our public galleries – please bear with us during this time, we are keeping the rest of the museum open and, once the works are completed, all galleries will be accessible again.

One difficulty remains: once all the works are completed the museum will look like nothing ever happened – we do not have a brand new building to show off for all our efforts. BUT the building will feel and operate differently. It will form a more reliable envelope around our collections. It will require less maintenance, saving us money and staff time. It will be more energy efficient and environmentally friendly, reducing our energy bills and forming a substantial contribution towards lowering our greenhouse gas emissions.

During this time of potential disruptions please bear in mind the end product, which will include a better museum experience for visitors today (well, next year) and in the future. And a building that continues to help us look after Wales’ national collection.

Should you have any questions at all about our refurbishment programme in relation to the collections, please do get in touch. We will be happy to assist in any way we can.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter.