Amgueddfa Blog: Museums, Exhibitions and Events

Where Have All Our Seabirds Gone?

Jennifer Gallichan, 23 January 2023

Regular visitors to the Natural History galleries at National Museum Cardiff will be familiar with our fantastic dioramas, particularly the one recreating a Pembrokeshire sea cliff complete with nesting sea birds, rock pools and life-size basking shark. Recent visitors will have noticed however a distinct lack of sea birds as we have had an outbreak of clothes moths which has threatened to eat all the taxidermy specimens! All the specimens have had to be removed for treatment and some will unfortunately not be returning as the damage is too severe.

A sad fact is that this disappearance is mirroring what is happening in the outside world. Birds are suffering a pandemic of their own, the worst outbreak of avian flu ever known in the northern hemisphere. A new strain of bird flu has been attacking bird populations since the autumn of 2021, spreading from intensively farmed poultry in China. By late spring of 2022 there were increasing reports of the disease in seabird colonies in the north of the UK, and this has now spread across the whole of the country.

Avian flu is a virus that affects a range of birds but as with other viruses there are many different strains, most of which cause few or moderate symptoms. The difference is that this current strain, HPAI H5N1, is transmitted easily and causes symptoms that can be fatal to birds.

The effect on wild bird populations has been devastating, particularly on sea birds who live in large dense colonies along cliffs and islands where the virus is easily transmitted. It is estimated that tens of thousands of birds have died - you may well have seen some of the footage of dead or dying birds or even seen dead birds along our coasts.

In the UK we are privileged to host internationally important breeding populations of seabirds, a whopping 25% of Europe’s breeding seabirds. Worst affected species are the Great Skua and Northern Gannet populations. Up to 11% (over 2,200 birds) of the UK population of Great Skuas have been lost and scientists have recorded such high numbers of Gannet deaths that they think some populations are near collapse. 

The situation is continuing to be monitored, particularly with waterfowl, like geese, who overwinter in the UK. The hope is that populations will eventually develop an immunity to the disease, and there have been some encouraging signs in some birds, like Puffins, who seem to have had a good breeding year in 2022.

We hope to see the return of our seabirds both in the galleries and along our coasts soon!

You can find more information and recent updates on the situation in Wales here: Avian influenza (bird flu): latest update | GOV.WALES. You can also read a more detailed blog about it on The Wildlife Trust blog pages: Avian flu – the latest symptom of our ailing ecosystems | The Wildlife Trusts.

If you want to help, there are several organizations appealing for support to help monitor the situation and help seabirds recover: The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO): BTO Avian Influenza Appeal | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology and RSPB: Bird Flu Emergency Appeal Donation Form | The RSPB.

If you find dead wild birds, you should follow the latest guidance on GOV.WALES (Report and dispose of dead birds | GOV.WALES) or GOV.UK (Report dead wild birds - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)) or  webpages. Remember not to touch or handle any dead or sick birds.

For a handy guide to identifying Welsh coastal birds, download our Nature On Your Doorstep spotters guide: Spotter's Guide | Museum Wales

Celebrating St. Fagans Victorian tree heritage

Luciana Skidmore, 28 October 2022

Autumn sends us an invitation to pause and admire the beautiful trees that surround us. It lays a vibrant carpet of colourful leaves welcoming us into the woods. In this once in a year spectacle, we advise that you wear comfortable shoes, take slower steps and mindfully redirect your gaze up to the sky to contemplate our magnificent trees. 

In St. Fagans National Museum of History, you can find some of the most beautiful specimens of trees planted by the Victorians and Edwardians that shaped our beautiful gardens. 

This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Fern-leaved Beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Aspleniifolia’) located in the terraced gardens of the castle. This magnificent and unusual specimen was planted in 1872 under the head gardener William Lewis. This cultivar was introduced in the UK in the early 1800’s and won the RHS Award of Garden Merit in 2002. The leaves are dark green and deeply serrated, turning golden before falling in autumn. This specimen has an impressive dark and smooth trunk with its girth measuring 3.67m in diameter. The Fern-leaved Beech is a Chimera, originated from a plant cell mutation of the Common Beech (Fagus sylvatica). An interesting fact is that occasionally some of the serrated leaves revert to the Beech leaf shape, when that happens it is advisable to remove the reverted branches as they tend to grow more vigorously than the cultivar.

Another magnificent feature that celebrates 150 years in St. Fagans is the row of London and Oriental Planes planted by William Lewis along the formal ponds overlooking the terraced gardens.  The London plane is a natural hybrid of the Oriental Plane and the American Plane. The Oriental (Platanus orientalis) and London Plane (Platanus x acerifolia) are distinguishable by their leaf shape with the Oriental Plane having more deeply lobed leaves. Many London planes were planted over 200 years ago in the squares of London, hence its common name. This tree can withstand high levels of pollution and was one of the few trees that could thrive in the soot-laden atmosphere of cities before the passing of the Clean Air Act in 1956. Did you know that this resilient tree can store around 7.423 kg of Carbon at maturity? Large trees like this play an important role in improving air quality by sequestering carbon dioxide, removing air pollutants and absorbing gases that are harmful to human health.

William Lewis was also responsible for the planting of the Pine Walk in 1870. This beautiful avenue of Black Pine (Pinus nigra) and Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) guides you through the path towards the old Orchard. These tall and majestic trees enclose the space resembling the walls of a Cathedral. The bark of the Black Pine is dark grey with ridges and the needles are longer than other Pines. The Scots Pine is the only Pine native to Britain, it has shorter and compact needles and a warm red upper bark. Unfortunately, in recent years we have lost some of our Pine trees, in order to preserve this historic feature, we have planted four new Black Pines along the path. 

As we take pleasure in admiring these magnificent trees in the present, we must thank some of the far-sighted people of the past who have gifted us with this wonderful legacy. Trees make our cities a more pleasant and healthy environment. They enhance biodiversity, reduce flood risk, improve air quality, provide shade, and reduce the urban heat island effect in summer months. If you would like to leave a valuable legacy for future generations, start by planting a tree.  

If you are visiting St. Fagans gardens this autumn, follow this Tree Walk Guide written by Dr. Mary Barkham to learn more about our outstanding tree collection. 

Opening of the National Museum October 1922

Kristine Chapman, 28 October 2022

On the 28th of October we will be celebrating 100 years since Amgueddfa Cymru first opened its doors to the public. Although the Museum's official centenary was in 2007, marking the founding by Royal Charter of 1907, the journey to opening was a much slower process characterised by delays and interrupted by the enormity of a world war.

After the granting of the Charter, architects were engaged to design the new building and the Foundation Stone was laid by George V on the 26th June 1912. The original intention was to complete the building in stages, so enough funds were raised to begin work on the south portion (which included the Main Hall) of the building.

Sepia-toned photograph of King George V and Queen Mary standing under a striped canopy at the ceremony to lay the Foundation Stone. The ladies are in long pale dresses with large hats and the men are in ceremonial military dress

Laying of the Foundation Stone 26th June 1912

When war broke out in 1914, work initially continued, as photographs from 1915 show, however before long the lack of building materials (particularly steel and lead) and labourers meant that work had to be halted. When it restarted again after the end of the war, the climate was very different. Britain experienced severe unemployment and poverty, plunging the country into a depression.

Photograph of the Museum under construction covered in scaffolding and cranes

Construction of the Museum building in Cathays Park, 1915

It was against this background that, even with building work still in progress, the western portion of the Main Hall was opened to the public on the 28th October 1922. Four days earlier the hoardings around the building had been removed and although there was no formal ceremony at this point, the Museum Court of Governors attended a visit of inspection, followed by lunch at City Hall with the Lord Mayor the day before.

Photograph of the exterior of the National Museum taken from the south-west. A few trees are in the foreground and one or two people can be seen walking around the building

View of the exterior of the Museum from the south-west

During the fifteen years since its foundation the Museum had been steadily employing staff and building collections. No guidebooks were produced for the informal opening, the first guide to the collections wasn’t published until a year later, but reports and photographs published in the local papers give us an idea of what those first visitors to the Museum would have seen. 

Photograph of the inside of the Main Hall with a grand staircase in the background, large columns supporting the ceiling and sculptures of figures dotted about

View of the Main Hall looking towards the western staircase

The Main Hall housed large sculptures such as The Kiss by Auguste Rodin and St John the Baptist by William Goscombe John. From the Main Hall visitors could enter the Glanely Gallery (now known as the Clore Discovery Gallery) to view geology collections, particularly rocks and minerals found in Wales. While in the square gallery across the opposite side of the Hall were the Zoology collections, occupying a space they still hold now, although the displays have been updated since those early days! 

A photograph of eight taxidermy stoats with various seasonal coats ranging from bright white to dark and standing on a model of rocks

Stoat display from the Zoology Gallery

Upstairs in the Pyke Thompson Gallery (now known as Gallery 18) the focal points were watercolour drawings once belonging to James Pyke Thompson and a collection of Welsh ceramics donated in 1918 by Wilfred de Winton. Across the bridge in the square gallery, oil paintings from the Menelaus Bequest were displayed.

Photograph of the interior of the Pyke Thompson Gallery, framed pictures line the walls and a glass cabinet of Welsh China stands in the centre of the room

The Pyke Thompson Gallery in 1925

The Archaeology Department did not have a gallery of their own at the time of the 1922 opening, as it would form part of the building still undergoing construction. But, a year later objects from the Archaeology collections were displayed in the Main Hall and on the balconies, before moving to a more permanent space in the first-floor front gallery (which is now occupied by the Welsh Ceramics collection). By 1925 they had also installed the Welsh Bygones galleries, with reconstructions of a Welsh kitchen and a Welsh bedroom, in a gallery at the back of the Main Hall and the Botany collections occupied the south-east front gallery on the ground floor (the area which is now the Welsh Herbarium).

Photograph of the interior of the Archaeology Gallery; there are four large glass cabinets containing Roman pottery standing in the centre of the room

The Archaeology Gallery in 1925

The layout of the Museum remained this way until the construction of the East Wing in the 1930s prompted a large-scale rearrangement of the galleries. Further alterations were made throughout the rest of the 20th century as the West Wing was constructed in the 1960s and then the Centre Block galleries were added in the early 1990s.  If you are interested in learning more about the history of Amgueddfa Cymru, keep an eye out for more blogs and articles appearing on our website over the coming months.

Spirited

Laku Neg, 26 October 2022

Spirited is an immersive installation in honour of fractured African traditions that feed and underpin our island culture in Trinidad and Tobago.

 

The Vision

In dreaming this work we thought about women. We knew about Luisa Calderón whose torture became well known during the infamous 1806 trial of Picton. We found reference to Present (a young enslaved woman executed by Picton for attempting to run away), in a Bridget Brereton history book. V.S. Naipaul’s Loss of El Dorado informed us of Thisbe, who was accused of sorcery and condemned to death - hanged, decapitated and burnt at the stake - her head placed on a pole. These women are essentially our ancestors. We considered questions such as: what would they say if they were able to speak through us? How can we honour them and transform their suffering - scream into song, torture into dance?

On seeing the drawings of Luisa’s torture we imagined her suspended figure as an elegant dancer. Captivated by the beauty of the human form, that motif would become a feature throughout the final piece.

Mary-Anne has a beautiful phrase: “6 aunties and a grandma -  embodying in many ways the kitchen space as a creative yard, a place for wisdom, disagreement, challenge, questioning and throwing lots of ideas into a pot - The kitchen, that yard aesthetic, was how we dreamed together. 

In dreaming, we imagined that anything was possible. We wanted to play with traditional and contemporary digital media and create an immersive journey, a dance.

 

The Work

While the kitchen yard aesthetic informed our dreaming, it was the Carnival yard aesthetic that informed how we made the work. At the heart of this was an invitation to be involved. 

Having worked in community arts, the intuition here was that, in order for people (such as museum staff) to have ownership over the work, they must feel part of it, so that they can deliver the message and share with others.

The making involved:

Collecting, Twisting, Weaving - “A tapestry of memory and understanding” The woven newspaper was the most communal aspect of our work - chosen as a way of utilising a handmade, something-from-nothing Carnival making aesthetic.

Metal work - Led by Cindy, we worked with Cardiff Engineering Company on the large centrepiece gallows structure. The intricate music box with a chocolate-covered wire Luisa, is a micro reflection of the macro centre installation.

Video & Photography - We produced 3 videos, each speaking to a different aspect of the journey we were symbolising through the 3 women. The photographs  aimed to re-imagine a childhood for Present, our women and all whom they represent.

Soundscape - We approached the audio as a continuation of the weaving. We invited and commissioned 4 musicians and composers to contribute pieces based on their interpretation of the environment we wanted to invoke. Interwoven are the spoken words of Luisa from a translation of Governor Picton’s trial.

Everyday hurricane Passing - This acapella by Mary-Anne is an invocation for Grandmothers we never knew and Nennen, women who cared for us in their absence, to dance.

‘Everyday Hurricane Passing’ but despite destruction, invasion, derision, separation, obstruction, bombardment, intrusion and denial, ever resourceful, we dream, we create riches, we dance and fight, we raise.

Painting - In this we wanted to engage an idea of transformation, with a particular focus on Thisbe representing warrior and healer. The limited and bright colour palette is in deliberate high contrast to Picton’s portrait.

The women - The presence, the actions and the duties of women are all pervading in the Caribbean. Our men were not allowed to be there to protect us. Through the narratives we know and the narratives we imagine, we centre these women within our paintings, wire work, photographs, videos and chocolate. We dance with beauty and the macabre - we tell a story of the named and step into the unnamed collective - the procession of those killed, tortured, wounded and maimed.

Creating the environment - The spiral is an echo of the centrepiece moving outward and inward - symbolising the processional. The colours on the wall represent the vibration and intensity of Caribbean colour and flavour.

 

The Resonance

This work is a celebration - we are still here.

 

See Spirited for yourself as part of the Reframing Picton exhbition at National Museum Cardiff until 3 September 2023.

Black Lives Matter - A speech from the opening of the Reframing Picton exhibition at National Museum Cardiff

The Reframing Picton group, 13 October 2022

Black Lives Matter.

For generations, even up to recent years, that’s been a controversial statement. Thomas Picton is only one of many instruments of the British Empire who exported, demonstrably, an opposing belief.

I’m unsure where I heard this but it’s stuck with me since:

“The instant a subject becomes aware they have been exposed to propaganda, that propaganda ceases to be effective”

In the case of Thomas Picton and his legacy, drenched in the blood of Africans and Native Caribbeans, was sanitized, valorised iteratively while he lived and especially following his death. The murder of George Floyd spurred people and institutions into gear, Amgueddfa Cymru were thankfully one of those institutions.

At the heart of the idea of empire is a differential sense of importance. Some places are more important than others, setting up the Metropole and the Colony. A center and a periphery. The prevailing narrative has always been fundamentally white supremacist, at the expense of Africans and Natives. The British Empire used the metropole-colony model to evade accountability for events driven by people like Picton.

Reframing Picton represents a divergence from this narrative. 

In the time we worked on this project we made a point to expose, not erase history. It was essential that we directly involved people connected to Trinidad, where Picton entrenched his reputation for barbarism during his tenure as Governor. 

Amongst the goals for this exhibit is the creation of a site of conscience rather than indoctrination. To create a dialogue between museums, the governments that fund them and the communities they serve. To create healthy ways of addressing.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a quote that I think encapsulates the purpose of the project most pertinently:

“If we want our future to be better than our past we need to challenge which aspects of our culture we preserve, build upon and deconstruct”