Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus!
It seems an appropriate/auspicious date on which to post a blog about another famous Welshman, Dylan Thomas.
I was commissioned, by the Museums Association, to review The Dylan Thomas Centre’s new permanent exhibition on Dylan Thomas. The review will be in this month’s Museums Journal (out today) but here it is too:
So, to begin at the beginning….
Dylan Thomas famously dubbed Swansea an “ugly lovely town” and this rings true as one approaches the Dylan Thomas Centre, situated beside the fishboat bobbing marina. This part of Swansea is still undergoing development and the car park, and its environs, could do with upgrading to create a better impression. However, the Dylan Thomas Centre itself is an attractive pile, constructed of honey-coloured limestone.
On entering, the staff are friendly and welcoming and exude a pride in their work and their workplace. They oriented me, pointing out the Dylan Thomas exhibition and the temporary exhibition and education spaces.
First impressions of the new permanent display, telling the story of Thomas’ life and works, are of a rather traditional, if shiny and new, space. A circular gallery chronologically arranged from, on the right, Thomas’ birth round (anti-clockwise) to his tragically early death in New York. One can see many tabletop glass cases and text on walls. “Oh dear” I thought.
However, how does one tell the story of a writer if not through his, and others’, writings? So I liberally sprinkled benefit over my doubt and began to engage with the exhibition…
The walls are peppered with quotes from the appropriate stage of the exhibition’s story (a timeline stretches along the edge of the ceiling from start to finish) and these begin to draw visitors in to the unravelling tale. “The memories of childhood have no order, and no end” struck a chord with me as did the description of the Kardomah Gang “…drinking coffee dashes and arguing the toss” (which could easily have described the MA Conference in Cardiff. Apart from the coffee…).
Throughout the space there are flip-up panels which invite inspection. They reveal further quotes, facts, and general information and, whilst a simple idea, the physicality actually enhanced the experience. There are smaller, lower, flip-up panels whose contents are more abstract and I was puzzled by these as there is no explanation of what they are for (one assumes they are for children and/or wheelchair users but this is not obvious).
Working further around the timeline one reaches a seating area where one can use headphones to hear Dylan Thomas’ writings in his own words. This was a special moment as I had only heard one or two recordings of his before. The headphones are essential in this position as there is significant sound “bleed” from an art installation around the corner which makes the exhibition feel more alive but also, sadly, does annoy slightly.
I was blown away to learn of his association with the Surrealist movement and his links with Dali, Picasso etc. It is this kind of informational gem which this exhibition delivers.
The whole exhibition is design-heavy, with objects, graphic panels and labels combined. It is, on the whole, a good design but there are one or two zones where it is difficult to make the link between object and label.
The designers have made the exhibition as interactive as possible (a challenge given the nature of the written word, photographs and other printed ephemera) with touch screens and flip-up panels. A model of a radio engages visitors in selecting, via a rotating knob, different broadcasts of Dylan Thomas’. I found this informative and entertaining until my selected broadcast ended and the radio emitted a loud, sustained hiss which I could not switch off (I sloped off, hoping no one noticed me…). All exhibitions featuring such interactivity are going to suffer from wear and tear and perhaps this is what’s happening here.
The art installation in the centre of the gallery mixes video and audio from various broadcasts of his works into an immersive experience with the visitor standing in the middle of three video screens. I found this piece a welcome artistic accompaniment to the rest of the informative gallery. Working further round one comes to objects associated with his most famous work “Under Milkwood”. They are held in cases whose design is redolent of medieaval reliquaries. Given the nature of the cases’ contents I felt this was highly appropriate and, hopefully, intentional.
Throughout the exhibition there is, where possible, primary source material which either was created by the hand of Thomas or is closely associated with him, his family and his story. Understandably, since his death, a great deal of other primary source material has been acquired by other collectors and it was wonderful to see this addressed through the temporary exhibition gallery close by which, at the time of this visit, contained a fascinating set of original writing from an American University’s collections.
The exhibition reaches a poignant end with a case showing Thomas’ tweed jacket and trousers and, finally, his death mask. I found this, and the photograph of the poet in his coffin, terrifically moving. It stimulated me to find out even more about the great man.
As a proud Welshman I was more than a little ashamed at my ignorance of the spectrum of Dylan Thomas’ work. Perhaps more than any other Welshman Dylan Thomas belongs to the world. This exhibition, despite minor glitches, admirably introduces visitors to his life, times and works. It takes them from his cheeky happy childhood, through his creative blossoming and, finally, on to 9 November 1953 when he died aged only 39.