Category Archives: Uncategorized

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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Challenging Exhibitions

Although I have worked in the museum sector most of my adult life I am still frustrated by how many of them still fail to make themselves relevant to their communities (despite constantly saying that they are).

I was therefore hugely impressed by this exhibition in the University of Kansas. It takes the testimony of sexual assault victims and places their words beside clothes they were wearing at the time of the assault (as the victims describe in their witness statements).

OK, this is not in a museum or art gallery. It is in a students’ union building. Even better!

And not all museums will have costume collections and/or exist to express the history of criminal justice and/or sexual health and wellbeing.

But what a fantastically simple, yet harrowing and highly-impactful idea for an exhibition. Dispelling the myth that victims of sexual assault “were asking for it” by the way they dress.

I’d like to see more bold, confrontational, community-situated exhibitions like this in the UK.

If you know of any please detail them in the comments section below.

Full Fat Yoga #1

OK, I have a confession to make. I tout myself as a specialist in adult learning (and the cultural sector) but I have not been an active learner myself for some time. Returning to learning is scary. You get things wrong. You feel stupid. You are out of your comfort zone. All the things in life that we tend to avoid. But the benefits, once you accept that there is nothing wrong with being wrong, it’s stupid to feel stupid, and it’s quite comforting to be uncomfortable (within reason), are very real.

So. How am I pushing my boundaries? What comfort zone am I stepping out of and what am I letting myself in for?

Yoga.

Yes, I’m going to unwind by tying myself up in knots.

The day after Boxing Day 2016 I suffered an agonising lower back spasm. I’ve had them before (comes with the territory of being 6ft 4ins and not standing up straight. Ever…) but this one was a doozey. It incapacitated me for two months and the opioid painkillers I was on affected my mood and judgement so badly that I lost a significant piece of work (mainly as I could not string a coherent sentence together when talking to clients). The drug issues eventually faded, as did the terrible back pain. But, since March 2017 I have been going to the gym a couple of times a week and trying to strengthen my core muscles in order to better protect my vertebrae. Top tip#1: if you clench your buttocks you engage your core and protect you lower spine. That was an easy lesson to learn. Clenching your buttocks is easy, especially with all the practice I’ve been getting every time I read the BBC News website (“Trump/Daily Mail/Kim Jong Un/Boris Johnson has said what!!?”)…

But I wanted to do more. I wanted to build strength and flexibility. I wanted to be able to wrap my ankles around my ears and levitate whilst strumming a sitar (nice image! Perhaps I’ll buy a small one. A baby sitar…).

So I metaphorically bit the imaginary bullet and went, today, to a yoga class.

I was nervous. I felt outside my comfort zone. I didn’t want to look stupid.

The class leader welcomed me warmly and I gave her my back’s back story. “Age-related wear and tear (blah, blah, blah), strengthen my core (blah, blah, blah), are these shorts ok (blah, blah, blah)…

Introductions done I set my newly-purchased yoga mat out beside a fellow student. I was the only guy there.

We got started.

Flippin heck! I didn’t know when to breathe in, when to breathe out, when to hold my breath. But I was beginning to feel stretched.

Hang on!? Dog head what? Upward dog what? Pint of Cobra? Sideways ferret? There’s a lot of animal references going on here. More stuff to learn.

Best part of the session was when the straps came out. Using them to pull your leg and get a hamstring stretch. Oh that was lush!

By the end I was a sweaty heap but I was stretched and relaxed. I will return and learn more.

Main lesson learned for next week is: wear pants under my shorts. Noone wants to see my giblets as I attempt clockwise rabbit or whatever the heck it’s called…

Onwards and upwards

 

Joy Division 

I was out walking my dog yesterday. Up ahead I saw a small group of pre-school children being taken for a walk by nursery staff. They were tiny against the adults holding their hands. Suddenly a council tractor drove past them. A big green and yellow thing. The children were too far away for me to hear but I could see them judder with excitement and point at this wondrous toy made real. That moment of innocence touched me, following a day of such horrendous news.

Bully for you. But not for me….

Some of you might know that I recently decided to stand for election to Cardiff Council in the upcoming May local elections in Wales. The vast majority of you will not.

However, I have just resigned from that position as I cannot bear the prospect of potentially being part of a party group (were I elected) with a powerful, proven bully. A bully of women nonetheless (proven by a recent adjudication panel for Wales, to which the case was referred by the Ombudsman for Wales).

Now if you want to find out what party I was standing for, who this bully is and all the nefarious details of the case then you can (because you are clever people and can use Google) but this post is not about party, personality or politics. It is about bullying.

Wednesday 8 March is International Women’s Day 2017. A day when all of us, irrespective of which gender we identify as, celebrate women’s successes and protest against the inequalities they face.

And one of the biggest problems they face is workplace bullying.

This is not to say, as a man, I cannot have a robust argument with a female colleague. Goodness knows I have, and have indeed experienced workplace bullying from a female manager myself. However, if I’m in a position of organisational power over a woman then I have to respect that position. Also, there’s the physical fact that I’m 6ft 4in and weigh the same as a prop forward (although I do try to de-emphasise  with stripes…).

It is important for all of us to respect each other.

If I’m guilty of bullying then I should apologise and seek to ensure it does not happen again. In the case to which I have nebulously alluded above, the man in question has yet to apologise. This I find inexcusable.

To potential bullies everywhere I say, taste your words before you spit them out.

 

Ghosts in the Machine?

Museums Association’s Patrick Steel (Museums Journal 14 Dec 2016) has drawn my attention to the fact that museums have been entirely left out of the Welsh Government’s diabetic coma-inducingly-titled “Light Springs Through The Dark: A Vision For Culture In Wales” (who on earth comes up with these report names…!?).

This is, as the pretentious title suggests, a “vision”. For culture. In Wales.

A vision that has a blindspot when it comes to museums.

The Welsh Government itself commissioned an Expert Review of Local Museum Provision last year. But has done nothing with it. Now it has conveniently forgotten about it and left it out of “Light Springs…” (Or should that be “Sh*te Springs…?” Perhaps the name will stick….).

Patrick’s full article can be read here.

One specific point leaps out. The Welsh Government are currently consulting on their suggestion to create an organisation called “Historic Wales” to combine the commercial operations of Cadw, National Museum Wales and The Royal Commission. In “Sh*te Springs…” (see, it DID stick!) the Welsh Government states it will create Historic Wales. No ifs, no buts, it will create. Nice valuing of consultation there WG!

I am appalled by Welsh Government’s attitude to the museum sector. Initially interested but, ultimately, callously indifferent to the contribution museums make to Wales economy and soul.

2016 was a bad year for all sorts of reasons. Museums in Wales will not be looking forward to a prosperous 2017.

Bah humbug….

Wish You Were Here

I’m a cultural consultant. My finances are subtly balanced. So why have I splashed out on attending a conference in Germany rather than one in the UK? I must be loaded!? I must be a senior level professional!? I must be a huge Europhile!?

Well it’s kind of a mix of those. Apart from the money and the senior thing.

I am a strong believer in the sharing of ideas. Of listening to others. Of giving your own opinion too. Networking…

I’ve been a consultant in adult learning and museums for two years. Prior to that I spent 10 years working for an adult learning charity called NIACE and a longer period within education and marketing in the museum sector. Part of my role at NIACE was to represent the organisation on EU projects. As a result I, for the first time, began to travel to continental Europe to attend, and sometimes speak at, conferences. I found, early on, that leaving the UK gave me an almost palpable sense of being on the outside and looking back in at my home’s museum sector. For good and ill.

So I am definitely in the Europhile zone. Over the years I have made friends in many countries and I have learned a great deal from them. There are wonderful learning projects happening across the rest of the EU. The UK does not have a monopoly on innovative ideas in the cultural sector.

Each year, as a consultant, I attend one major conference as an opportunity to develop myself as a professional and to make new contacts that might lead to work in the future. This year I looked at my main three targets: GEM, MA and AIM. None of them fitted well. One because of timing and the other two because of cost. Then I received notification of the annual NEMO conference in Karlsruhe.

NEMO is the Network of European Museum Organisations. Basically its membership is comprised of each country’s museum association. It’s the network that the UK’s Museums Association goes to.

I have attended two previous NEMO meetings in Berlin and Ljubljana. I spoke at the latter on “adult learning and the museum sector” (an insightful exploration of the relevance the two sectors have to each other).

NEMO conferences are attended by an interesting mix of senior-level museum directors right through to early career museum professionals. Conference themes are always on interesting/engaging issues of the day. Workshops are led by some of the most highly regarded professionals on the continent. And, critically, the three day conference is refreshingly cheap! This one has cost me just over £100 and includes all food and drink (at the time of writing I am still in Karlsruhe and attempting to drink my weight in red wine).

About 160 delegates are attending this conference so it has a nice feel to it. Not too big.

Over the last two days I have met up with old friends from Sweden, Denmark and Italy and caught up with their fascinating work around engaging adults in learning. I have also met some lovely people from The Netherlands, Russia, Finland and Liechtenstein. Surprisingly I have only spoken to one UK attendee. From what I can see I am the only UK delegate who is not a speaker/workshop leader.

The lack of UK delegates saddens me. I appreciate it is immediately after the MA Conference but I’m sure there are many museum professionals in the UK who would benefit from being at this one. I have done my best to promote the conference to my networks back home but noone has reacted positively. A few have got back to me to say that it sounds really interesting but they could never justify a “jolly” .

There does, of course, have to be a cost/benefit analysis each time you look at attending a conference but to write one off purely because it is on continental Europe is so wrong. As I mentioned above the conference has cost me a little over £100. I paid for a flight to Frankfurt, a train from there to Karlsruhe and the cheapest hotel I could find. I estimate this conference has cost me no more than attending MA or GEM in Scotland.

So much for the cost. What about the benefit of NEMO 2016?

I was stimulated by the keynote address from Pier Luigi Sacco, Professor of Cultural Economics at IULM University, Milan and visiting Professor at Harvard (no relation) University. He posed the question “how do museums create value?” Surely the most crucial question facing all museums as they face death by a thousand cuts. An appeal to any conference organisers reading this article: book him!

Other presentations included “creating partnerships with scientific, social and artistic sectors”, “measuring the value of museums”, a fascinating and rigorously-researched “critical reflection of Guggenheim’s return on investment in Bilbao”, a moderated discussion on “Business models of museums: what works and what doesn’t?” and an enlightening “museum cooperation with colleagues from Europe: How to apply for EU Culture funding”.

Informal discussions, usually over a glass of wine, inevitably gravitated towards Brexit once delegates realised where I was from. All were horrified.

So, did I make new contacts? Yes. Did I learn new things? Yes. Did I find work as a result? Short answer is “no”, longer answer is “no, but I am in a better position to offer my services to a wider range of countries than I was before”. Did I have fun? Yes, apart from finding myself with 5 hours to kill in Karlsruhe on a Sunday due to my poor calculations re return flight tickets (there’s only so long one can stand in sub-zero temperatures, clutching a Starbucks coffee, outside H&M to piggyback their wifi signal…).

If you think conferences on continental Europe are “jollies”, think again. Broaden your mind and your horizons will follow.

(This review is also available on the ICOM(UK) website: http://uk.icom.museum/news/view/?title=/nemo-conference-2016-wish-you-were-here/ where you will find information on the Working Internationally Programme)

 

 

Whip Crack-Away

Below is the unedited text of my review of a current exhibition in National Museum Cardiff. The review appeared in the May edition of The Museums Journal:

The marketing for this exhibition has heavily used the imagery of Indiana Jones, the jauntily-hatted, kangaroo-hide whip-wielding hero of Hollywood scriptwriters. Whilst I am a fan of the Steven Spielberg films this did worry me as I expected to encounter more style than substance. More story than objects. However I was to be pleasantly disappointed.

Treasure: Adventures in Archaeology is the National Museum Cardiff’s first temporary exhibition, for over 20 years, for which an admission charge is levied. £7 per adult is not cheap (35 concessions, 16yrs and under go free) for a museum which has done much in the last decade to grow its reputation as a museum which provides access to all. So I donned my museologists hat, stowed my whip of cynicism on my belt and entered…

The exhibition is housed in the museum’s east wing temporary exhibition gallery which is a long rectangle in plan. Visitors enter via one of the long sides of the rectangle. The first thing to notice is the excellent, large, narrative panels which introduce visitors to some of the basic principles and issues to be found in the rest of the exhibition. The panels are mounted at a relatively low (but not too low for my 6ft 4in frame) height and use language which is both appropriate to a wide range of visitors and as much challenging as it is informing. The size and style of these panels is consistent throughout the gallery and greatly enhance the objects on show (some of which, for me, were stronger than others).

The very first case-mounted objects are poorly lit from high above and shadows spoiled my viewing of them. Throughout the gallery there are some issues with the individual object labels and lighting for the same reasons.

On entry I turned right and started to view the cases and panels. After a few minutes I arrived at the exit! I realised, with the help of a museum attendant, that I should have turned left. A simple problem which could be simply rectified by some kind of panel-, or floor-mounted instruction/arrows.

Once back on track I noticed the exhibition itself only took up about half of the temporary exhibition space, which was a disappointment for a paid-for exhibition. Having visited the museum many times over the years I assumed the whole space would be taken up.

I found my stride and started to read and view. The exhibition adopts an intriguing and stimulating approach of taking the visitor on a chronological inquiry of archaeology, using key archaeologists as the hook.

Did you know that Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823), one of the first real excavators of Egyptian sites, had an earlier career as a strongman and was also known as “The Sampson of Patagonia” and described later as “archaeologist and weightlifter”? I love these kinds of facts and couldn’t have been more surprised and entertained if I’d learned that Geoff Capes had joined the Time Team..

The displays continued on through William Matthew Flinders Petrie “Father of Egyptian Archaeology”, Heinrich Schliemann (discoverer, and plunderer, of Troy), Hiram Bingham the discoverer of Machu Pichu (at this point the large narrative panel asked the question “What’s the biggest thing you have ever lost? Have you lost a city?”, which made me smile) and more.

It was good to see information about Adele Breton who, apart from William Petrie’s wife, was the only female archaeologist I could see. Her obsidian tool cores, from Mexico, were beautiful and my favourite objects).

This trail of historically important archaeologists continued through to include early British examples and some from Wales.

The story of these individuals was cleverly interwoven with the story of a small number of cultures from around the world. Mycenae, Ancient Greece, Pre-Columbian, Rapa-Nui (Easter Island), Egypt and Wales.

One or two of the intermediate level narrative panels were placed at different heights and some were too high for the smaller visitor or those who may be seated. But this is a minor point in what otherwise is a good execution of a text-writing which is highly engaging. The several interactive screens around the gallery are simple, intuitive and work well. They flesh out the story told by panels and objects and give the visitor a deeper engagement. Their use of illustrations and text was crisp and uncluttered.

At one point, for some unknown reason, there is a 2ft diameter brown ball (mounted in a side panel) which is constantly revolving to reveal a skull embedded within. This didn’t bring anything to the experience other than a loud “click” each time it turned.

As a Welshman I was fascinated by the displays of archaeology and archaeologists from Wales. Finds from the wreck of the Ann Francis, the Tregwynt Civil War hoard and hoards from Bridgend. All clearly displayed.

Near the end of the exhibition (now that I knew where that was…) there are cases which explore the cultural impact of archaeology through time. Books, ornaments, stamps, jewellery etc. Another exhibited archaeological “fakes”, challenging the visitor to think about what archaeologists do and the finding of “truth”.

A panel on 1920s archaeologists and their relationships with newspapers and the writing of regular articles was used to draw parallels with “bloggers” of today. Another took the opportunity to explain the importance, and impact, of responsible metal detecting with an explanation of the finding of a Viking burial in Llanbedrgoch, Anglesey.

A children’s area contains paper, crayons, workbooks and textured panels from which to take rubbings. A simple, but well delivered area which will entertain children and adults alike. The workbooks contained some activity which asked children to think about what is meant by “treasure”. I think the exhibition could have been a bit more explicit about this too, but that is a minor quibble.

Finally, framed by the two bronze exit doors, is the case containing the “real” Indiana Jones’ hat, jacket and whip. He is a Hollywood hero to many, but the case label politely pointed out that he wasn’t necessarily the best at careful, logical, scientific excavations and research.

The visitors’ book comments are universally positive and I have to agree with them. I spent an hour in the exhibition and learned many unexpected things.

As I walked down the steps outside the museum I couldn’t resist glancing back to see if I was being followed by an enormous stone ball….

 

Apathy in the UK

I haven’t written a post in this blog for some months. I only tend to write when something moves me and I feel I want to share. Well today I have most certainly been moved (if by “moved” you mean “angered”).

It’s election time in the UK. Devolved government elections and some local authority elections in England as well as the media circus that is the London Mayoral Election.

I have always exercised my right to vote. I see it as a duty. However, today I spoke to someone from high up in a South Wales Valley and asked them, in all innocence and just as part of the general chit-chat, had they voted yet.

Their response was “Oh no, I don’t vote. I’m not into politics”.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!

I didn’t challenge them as I felt it unfair that the two of us should argue over this issue, rather than our government take action to sort out voter apathy.  The pundits/polls predict a very low turnout for the elections in Wales

It CAN be done. Look at the Scottish Independence Referendum. In the run-up to that I happened to be in Edinburgh and chatted to a taxi driver about what he thought of the whole thing. I expected an angry, semi-literate, right wing response from him (after all I have experience of Cardiff taxi rides…) but no. He started to tell me about a heavy political tome he was reading by a well-respected academic. We discussed the pros and cons and I left his cab energised by his commitment to learning more about the potential political and economic impact of independence.

Voter apathy is a symptom of a lack of engagement with society. A feeling that there are things that we need not worry about because nothing ever changes. A feeling that politics is irrelevant.

Well, see those potholes in your road? That’s politics. See those homeless people begging in the street? That’s politics. The 3 week wait to see a GP? Politics. The new estate built on a Greenfield site? Yep, politics.

In the absence of a revolution we need politicians to grasp this nettle of self-disenfranchisement. We need more adults learning about the importance of action at a personal, family, community and national level. We need more adults learning. Learning empowers people. But then again, maybe that’s exactly what the ruling classes don’t want…?

Right, I’m off to vote. It happens once every few years but I am going to make a promise this time. I promise that I will do my best to get more people to vote next time (for whatever colour of political party). I don’t know how I’m going to do it but I’m going to try. It’s my duty.