Modernising Welsh History

Here is the unedited text of my review of St. Fagans National Museum of History’s latest developments. Edited copy appears in the October 2017 edition of Museums Journal:

St. Fagans National Museum of History was established by Dr. Iorwerth Peate in 1948 and quickly became an iconic museum, one which is very close to the heart of the Welsh people. It is an open air museum (based on Sweden’s Skansen model), housing buildings from across Wales and across the centuries. By its very nature it is a museum which has grown slowly, organically, over the decades with its reconstructed buildings scattered throughout its protected woodland environment.

For almost 50 years the gateway to this tapestry of Welsh built and social heritage has been an elongated, low-slung, brooding concrete and glass building which housed entrance hall, restaurant, toilets and galleries.

Thus St. Fagans (as it is more commonly known) has been, for most of its life, a contrast of old and new. The new giving way, after visitors have entered, to the old.

Since the summer of 2012 St Fagans has been undergoing consultation and transformation thanks to a £30million project which has included £11.55million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (the largest ever HLF grant to a single organisation in Wales). This development is proving to be St. Fagans’ largest ever and will launch the Museum into the next 50 years of its life as top tourist attraction in Wales (approx 600,000 visitors per annum).

Such a unique opportunity demanded creative and inclusive thinking. To this end the Museum has engaged in full partnership with external user groups to ascertain their expectations and desires of the new, improved site.

St. Fagans faced, like many museums in similar positions, the challenge of managing a large capital project, which delivered huge benefits for future visitors, whilst minimising the negative impact on current visitors. I believe the architects, builders and museum managers have done this as well as they could hope.

Thus it was that St. Fagans publicly opened their new visitor services on 14 July, being careful to not give the mistaken impression that the whole project is finished.

This phase of development has resulted in the opening of the new entrance hall, restaurant, toilets, education spaces and a separate, modern building which houses a cafe and a hands-on craft learning centre.

On my approach from the car park to the main building I could see little new. It just seemed the ticket office had moved a few metres to the right. However as I moved closer I could see that the architects had very sensitively extended the building to my left, creating a larger internal space. As I entered the new admissions point I walked into a large, almost two storey high, enclosed main hall filled with light. This used to be an internal exposed courtyard which was a white elephant for the Museum as its concrete and paving slabbed surfaces made it an ankle-breaking hazard and concrete desert. To see it brought into the building in this way was a revelation and has created a large flexible space for all manner of public and private events and income-generating opportunities. This alone was worth doing. But the changes continued.

Turning to my left I walked through the new main hall and into Y Gegin (trans: The Kitchen) which is one of the Museum’s new cafe/restaurant areas. A pleasant, if architecturally neutral, open plan space which reaches into the new extension area. The food preparation area of Y Gegin is also open plan and one can observe food being cooked. This adds to the open feel of the space. As many external walls as possible are actually floor to ceiling glass, which not only admits light but also brings the external environment inside. It is most pleasing to be able to view the open air museum from inside as one enjoys a cuppa.

The main exit from this building and out onto the open air museum is also a large portico of glass and steel which gives a much wider aspect on the outside than that which it replaced. The architects have clearly, wherever possible, attempted to open out this listed building to ensure the external and the internal are fluid. The old building was more of a barrier through which one had to pass. This building feels like an invitation. An invitation to explore inside and an invitation to step out into Wales’ history.

Also on the first floor, at the opposite end of the main hall from the exit/entrance to the open air museum, is the Weston Centre for Learning, funded by the Garfield Weston Foundation. This comprises a modest reception area (with TV monitors, lockers and toilets off), and three large, well-resourced, flexible learning spaces (wheeled tables, stacking chairs, sinks etc). This is a huge boost to the learning service that St Fagans has delivered for decades. I’m sure the learning department staff will be thrilled. Each of the three rooms has another, externally-facing door which opens out to the open air museum. This will enable the rooms to be used for public events as well as those organised group activities which need to be undertaken away from the public. Simple idea but very effective and high impact.

Two brand new gallery spaces complete the first floor transformation. These are being launched at the end of the project in October 2018 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of St. Fagans National Museum of History.

On leaving the main building and entering the open air museum one turns left and eventually arrives at Y Gweithdy (trans: The Workshop). This is, perhaps, the most startling building on site as it is brand new and highly angular. More Grand Designs than rural heritage. This houses a new gallery (yet to be fully commissioned),  a cafe and a hands-on learning space where traditional crafts will be taught. The cafe is the only operational part of this building so far but I see huge potential for the craft skills centre. Recently, on the other side of Offa’s Dyke, the Arts Council of England found that 87% of builders had no formal qualification in heritage building skills (houses pre-1919). I have no doubt Wales faces a similar issue and it is learning centres like Y Gweithdy, set in a museum context, which are best placed to deliver change.

St. Fagans’ management are to be applauded for the level of community inclusion in the planning process for this development (which will become much clearer with the opening of its new galleries in October 2018) and for the way in which it has kept the Museum open amidst serious disruption caused by the major rebuild and new builds. As much a Welsh national talisman as a museum, St. Fagans is building a brighter future on Dr Iorwerth Peate’s foundation.


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