It was a lovely day, clear skies, cold but dry and sunny with no wind. Apparently Wales was breaking barometer records with readings of 1050.5 hectopascals (hPa) recorded not far away in Mumbles, the highest reading in the UK since 1957! The perfect conditions for a winter visit to what the leaflet still refers to as one of Europe’s leading open-air museums. The business of the day was a meeting of the Rural Museums Network, so the open-air experience was sadly limited but included a walk across some of the site taking in the new Gweithdy gallery and Llys Llywelyn the medieval prince’s hall.
Woodlands, gardens, Welsh rural buildings, animals and big outdoor play area were all in evidence all contributing to the desire to return for another visit.
We were looked after by Senior Curator Gareth Beech and treated to a personal tour of two of the three new galleries that have won the site Art Fund Museum of the Year 2019.
Life is… gallery deals with the social history stories that are so well supported by the museum’s collections. As a new gallery within the refurbished St Fagans main building it was clearly doing well for museum visits and organised learning trips alike.
Gweithdy gallery is some distance away from the main building and by all accounts does suffer somewhat in terms of visitor numbers as a result. Yet it is purpose built housing the gallery, plus the site’s second café, a small craft workshop room and an outdoor space used for blacksmith courses with portable furnaces. The gallery takes a different approach to items from the same core collection, dividing its areas up into the material used to make the item, or tools used with that process. This allows an interesting breakdown within the gallery each following a separate narrative, but telling the story of rural craft industry and life in Wales.
Rural Museums Network
The main point of the day was not of course visiting the museum, but attending the Rural Museums Network Seminar hosted by Chris Copp from Staffordshire. This was one of a number of regional events being held in order to keep the network going and to engage with collections of rural life in other museums. For the ice breaker we were each encouraged to outline our worst nightmare and consign it to ‘Room 101’ – everything from duplicate collections (over twenty seed drills from Shugborough) to woodworm were gleefully discarded and it got the group thinking.
As my first encounter with the network I found the general introduction, the items on collections and contemporary issues, and the routes for further information and support a revelation. Certainly if the North West meeting at the Kendal Museum of Lakeland Life had gone ahead I would have attended that and perhaps made some more local contacts. On the other hand the discussions, the people and the venue made this trip very worthwhile.
With increased pressures on our services Lancashire County Council are being forced to consider all options and our chosen route forward involves a full collections review. Like many other services our collections date back to local authority reorganisation in the early 70s. Some pre-existing collections came to us, but the vast majority is material collected over the past fifty years. Inevitably the temptation is to try to ‘save’ too much, not only of our main industries of cotton and coal, but also of farming, craft and rural life which were also a vital part of our story. National Museum Wales approach at St Fagans of collecting the buildings within which these crafts and industries flourished is out of our reach – so what to do?
In order to conduct a collections review a number of very important factors need to be present. One of which is to know and understand your collections in a wider context. Imagine my relief on discovering at the Rural Museums Network that curators across the country, including many of my predecessors in Lancashire, had been sporadically contributing to a dataset dedicated to what is referred to as the Distributed National Collection. An understanding of the existence of this alone was well worth the effort to make the trip, the tour of such an excellent and interesting venue on top of that was a bonus.
I am now hoping that back in the day job I will find help, support and information from this network. The optimism of the late 70s and 80s when it was just a matter of time before we would use all of our collections, including recreating every kind of craft workshop, evaporated long ago. Our own efforts to create a rural life museum in Lancashire failed at least thirty years ago now. As the collections review rolls towards our rural and craft industry collections, and I am considering what to do with the entire contents of a blacksmiths or brush makers workshop, twelve different but essentially similar ploughs, and the endless catalogue of agricultural hand tools, I will at least have colleagues to call on.
Philip Butler – Curator Lancashire County Council
Before finding my ideal job as Curator of Industry and Technology for Lancashire County Council Museums Service I looked after industrial collections for Derby, Nottingham, and Wigan and managed a number of museum sites. Now I look after the Designated collection of the Lancashire textile industry including Helmshore Mills and Queen Street Mill textile museums, and the wider Lancashire collection. I also advise maritime museums at Fleetwood and Lancaster and the Ribble Steam Railway in Preston.