Last year, Cardiff Central Library played host to the excellent Japan Day, a wonderful celebration of Japanese culture. This Saturday, the event makes a welcome return, and I can say, with some excitement, that I'll be participating this time. The Renseikan Kendo Club will be providing two demonstrations during the day, and I'll be involved. So, if you want to see me get hit in the head, there is no better opportunity than on Saturday in Cardiff - equally, there will be many other things going on, well worth a look. Details below.
It had all the makings of something brilliant. Allen Ginsberg, LSD and the holdings of the National Museum of Wales. The ingredients for museum magic had all been carefully selected, and yet, the end flavour was something quite bland. This was the overwhelming, or perhaps underwhelming would be a more apt description, feeling that I was left with on leaving the latest exhibition to fill the contemporary art wing of the National Museum. Wales Visitation: Poetry, Romanticism and Myth in Art starts with a bang, and then fizzles into familiar territory and oft trod paths. It had the makings of brilliance, the end result was someway short.
The latest exhibition to occupy the first floor of the National Museum takes its inspiration from a poem, crafted by Allen Ginsberg during an LSD driven journey through the Black Mountains. The poem itself is a giddy but recognizable work. There is no doubt that the verses of Wales Visitation are ones which embrace the ancient landscape through a subverted lense of perception, and yet, the reality Ginsberg creates is one that will trigger the memory of anyone to have taken a walk through that same setting. The Welsh landscape, as inspiration, sets the tone for the gallery themes to come. Sadly though, the altered realities enjoyed in the verse, have little impact on the interpretations to come.
Wales Visitation certainly opens impressively. Visitors are unavoidably confronted by a giant projection of Ginsberg. This frantic, bearded face looms over the entry way, leaving those who enter in little doubt as to who has provided the initial inspiration for the overall exhibition. Opposite Ginsberg’s projected performance, are Thomas Jones’ The Bard, and Iolo Morganwg’s bardic alphabet. It all resonates with elements of Ginsberg’s poem and mention of bards, and connects the 1960s work with a historical Welsh narrative of poetic imaginings and bardic tradition. It serves as an effective juxtaposition and, for the National Museum, a reasonably innovative opening to an exhibition.
Sadly, from this point on, everything becomes terribly safe and common. While the inclusion of several offerings from Graham Sutherland certainly further the concept of the Welsh landscape inspiring artists, Sutherland’s very inclusion serves to undermine any sense of challenge that this exhibition might pose, put simply, we have been here before in this museum. Once more, Richard Long’s Blaenau Ffestiniog Circle is rolled out, just as it was when the contemporary art galleries were first opened three years ago. The same might be said of the ever wonderful Glory Glory by Laura Ford. This fantastical reimagining of traditional Welsh costume adds a sense of the macabre and the uncanny to the exhibition, but it is far from a new addition to these galleries.
Perhaps though it is not so much the familiarity of the works of art on show here, but the way in which they are displayed. Walking through the gallery, I kept asking myself ‘where is the LSD?’ Not wanting the National Museum to plunge headfirst into the inconceivable, I had at least hoped that the exhibition design would have challenged me as much as the collections. In the end, Wales Visitation becomes a harmless, standard exhibition. No chances are taken, nothing about the exhibit stands out as distinctive or, frankly, memorable. It’s a terrible shame, because when I first became aware of the concept, I wanted to be challenged, I wanted to be wowed. Ultimately, I wanted the National Museum Wales to show us that its approach to contemporary art displays could amount to something more than pattern match programmes. The collections allow for the memorable, but Wales Visitation becomes Wales Forgettable all too quickly.
A side grumble – there is a wonderful family guide available, complete with a miniature cartoon Ginsberg. It’s wonderful in its whimsy, but the guide seems most accessible (in terms of being physically obtainable for visitors) only when having worked through two-thirds of the exhibition. For many, by the time they find this brilliant little trail, they are almost at the end of the entire exhibit already – another disappointing oversight.
With the start of March, so ended the life of archaeology in the National Museum Wales, in the city centre at least. A farewell event was hosted on the 5th, with some of the most notable figures in archaeology in Wales assembling to explore the collections once more, before they are packed up, for theoretical display in St Fagans. I say 'theoretical display' quite cynically and sincerely, because it would appear that very little of the national archaeology collection will actually appear on show once the new St Fagans opens for business, but more on that later.
I've been to plenty of gallery openings over the years, but the closure of Origins was something quite unique. Some in attendance jokingly called it a wake, other meant it quite seriously. Platitudes were afforded to what has stood out as one of the most effective and innovative displays of archaeology certainly in Wales, if not further afield as well. Total visitor figures of 708,000 were cited, a remarkable number. Given such clear popularity for the Origins gallery, the question should surely be asked once more, why oh why is archaeology being packed up and shuffled away into the back cupboard of St Fagans' holdings.
Roughly a hundred individuals came to send the archaeology displays on their way, and a frequently somber mood, equally gave way to merriment, as old faces were seen for the first time in many years. The 'wake' was split into three sections, an initial talk, followed by an opportunity to walk through the exhibition once more, before closing with a session considering the planned future exhibitions for St Fagans. This final element was originally pitched as a Q&A, an opportunity for concerned voices to raise their views regarding the seemingly shoddy treatment of archaeology. The Q&A however did not happen.
Perhaps it was for the best that the Q&A was hastily abandoned. That is was, perhaps reflected the mood of the crowd. Few voices present who I engaged with could present a positive view on the move from city centre to St Fagans. Indeed, most voices were those of fear, that archaeology would face a future in the shadows, overwhelmed by St Fagans' remit for social history. A quick view of the proposed new galleries for St Fagans did little to dispel any such concerns. Thematic rather than period driven exhibitions are proposed, in which archaeology will certainly play a part, but it is clear that the archaeology collections will play a supportive role, rather than be a distinctive element within the new museum. Certainly, there will be much much less on display than there ever was in Origins, and that is a great shame given the quality of the collections held in Wales.
So, Origins is gone, or in the process of going as exhibitions are stripped down, and objects boxed up. Below are a selection of images from the archaeology displays as they once were, a reminder of when archaeology had a central role to play. Take them in, because, sadly, it would seem that we will not have the opportunity to enjoy the display of Welsh archaeology in such quantity or quality, for a very, very long time.
There has been plenty of reason to grumble about the National Museum Wales of late, certainly if you are an archaeologist. One of the things that I have found most troubling about the closure of the archaeology gallery, is that a major part of the Welsh story will be lost to audiences in the city centre. A museum stacked with international art collections is not a National Museum, it is a National Gallery - an institution which serves a very different purpose.
That being said, a National Gallery which explores Welsh themes would be no bad addition to the Welsh landscape, and is a concept which frequently generates excitement in Senedd debates (coming up once a year or so). When the contemporary art gallery opened in the National Museum Wales, it did so with a notion that this space would allow the museum to explore Welsh artists and Welsh works of art. In the early days, this was achieved quite effectively. However subsequent exhibitions have includes 'The Queen: Art and Image', 'Pop and Abstract' and of course the Artes Mundi prize displays - all of which were highly questionable in terms of their relevance to an exploration of Welsh themes, certainly Welsh artists were ephemeral contributors at best to such displays.
Officially launching tomorrow though, is the 'Wales Visitation: Poetry, Romanticism and Myth in Art'. It is, I would argue, the first National Museum Wales exhibition to be inspired by the use of LSD, it taking its inspiration from Allen Ginsberg's 1967 wanderings through the Welsh landscape. I'm looking forward to getting down to the museum next week, but I've heard bits and pieces about the collection, which will include the likes of 'The Bard', and a Mari Lwyd. I'm hoping for something wonderfully bizarre, but first and foremost I'm hoping for something Welsh. Early indications suggest that this exhibition will do just that, and my hope is that this becomes the norm, rather than the special.
You will find lots of voices who will, unofficially of course, state their concerns about the changes taking place in Cardiff - but unless there is change at directorate level, a 'museum of art' is exactly what Cardiff will become. If that is to be the case, it is of increased importance that such themes and concepts are explored in the National Galleries - Welsh archaeology is about to be jettisoned from the National story, were the same to be said of Welsh narratives generally, it would be a great shame indeed. Such ideas may seem OTT, but the National Museum I walk through today, seems to have less and less to do with Wales with each passing year. So, here's hoping for good and freaky, but above all, Welsh things with 'Wales Visitation', and an emphasis on such themes for the future.
Wales Visitation: Allen Ginsberg
White fog lifting & falling on mountain-brow
Trees moving in rivers of wind
The clouds arise
as on a wave, gigantic eddy lifting mist
above teeming ferns exquisitely swayed
along a green crag
glimpsed thru mullioned glass in valley raine—
Bardic, O Self, Visitacione, tell naught
but what seen by one man in a vale in Albion,
of the folk, whose physical sciences end in Ecology,
the wisdom of earthly relations,
of mouths & eyes interknit ten centuries visible
orchards of mind language manifest human,
of the satanic thistle that raises its horned symmetry
flowering above sister grass-daisies’ pink tiny
bloomlets angelic as lightbulbs—
Remember 160 miles from London’s symmetrical thorned tower
& network of TV pictures flashing bearded your Self
the lambs on the tree-nooked hillside this day bleating
heard in Blake’s old ear, & the silent thought of Wordsworth in eld Stillness
clouds passing through skeleton arches of Tintern Abbey—
Bard Nameless as the Vast, babble to Vastness!
All the Valley quivered, one extended motion, wind
undulating on mossy hills
a giant wash that sank white fog delicately down red runnels
on the mountainside
whose leaf-branch tendrils moved asway
in granitic undertow down—
and lifted the floating Nebulous upward, and lifted the arms of the trees
and lifted the grasses an instant in balance
and lifted the lambs to hold still
and lifted the green of the hill, in one solemn wave
A solid mass of Heaven, mist-infused, ebbs thru the vale,
a wavelet of Immensity, lapping gigantic through Llanthony Valley,
the length of all England, valley upon valley under Heaven’s ocean
tonned with cloud-hang,
—Heaven balanced on a grassblade.
Roar of the mountain wind slow, sigh of the body,
One Being on the mountainside stirring gently
Exquisite scales trembling everywhere in balance,
one motion thru the cloudy sky-floor shifting on the million feet of daisies,
one Majesty the motion that stirred wet grass quivering
to the farthest tendril of white fog poured down
through shivering flowers on the mountain’s head—
No imperfection in the budded mountain,
Valleys breathe, heaven and earth move together,
daisies push inches of yellow air, vegetables tremble,
grass shimmers green
sheep speckle the mountainside, revolving their jaws with empty eyes,
horses dance in the warm rain,
tree-lined canals network live farmland,
blueberries fringe stone walls on hawthorn’d hills,
pheasants croak on meadows haired with fern—
Out, out on the hillside, into the ocean sound, into delicate gusts of wet air,
Fall on the ground, O great Wetness, O Mother, No harm on your body!
Stare close, no imperfection in the grass,
each flower Buddha-eye, repeating the story,
Kneel before the foxglove raising green buds, mauve bells dropped
doubled down the stem trembling antennae,
& look in the eyes of the branded lambs that stare
breathing stockstill under dripping hawthorn—
I lay down mixing my beard with the wet hair of the mountainside,
smelling the brown vagina-moist ground, harmless,
tasting the violet thistle-hair, sweetness—
One being so balanced, so vast, that its softest breath
moves every floweret in the stillness on the valley floor,
trembles lamb-hair hung gossamer rain-beaded in the grass,
lifts trees on their roots, birds in the great draught
hiding their strength in the rain, bearing same weight,
Groan thru breast and neck, a great Oh! to earth heart
Calling our Presence together
The great secret is no secret
Senses fit the winds,
Visible is visible,
rain-mist curtains wave through the bearded vale,
gray atoms wet the wind’s kabbala
Crosslegged on a rock in dusk rain,
rubber booted in soft grass, mind moveless,
breath trembles in white daisies by the roadside,
Heaven breath and my own symmetric
Airs wavering thru antlered green fern
drawn in my navel, same breath as breathes thru Capel-Y-Ffn,
Sounds of Aleph and Aum
through forests of gristle,
my skull and Lord Hereford’s Knob equal,
All Albion one.
What did I notice? Particulars! The
vision of the great One is myriad—
smoke curls upward from ashtray,
house fire burned low,
The night, still wet & moody black heaven
upward in motion with wet wind.
Six and a half years ago, one of the most engaging and innovative displays of archaeology seen in Wales was opened. In 2007, the Origins Gallery in the National Museum of Wales became the home for the national archaeological narrative. Having previously been stretched out over multiple floors and several galleries, the archaeology collections suffered from a change in museum strategy, and were relocated into a much smaller display area, into what was always intended to be a temporary exhibition. Come the 2nd of March, 2014, there will be no doubt as to the temporary status of this display, it will close, permanently.
With the closure of the Origins gallery, the city centre museum will bid farewell to the displayed archaeological materials. This is particularly significant because since the very earliest days of the national museum project in Wales, archaeology has been a significant contributor to the museum displays and collections. With Mortimer Wheeler at the helm, first as a Keeper of Archaeology, but later as Director of the entire institution, the archaeological narrative played a defining role in considerations of what Wales was built on, and where a sense of Welsh identity came from. No more.
In the coming years, the redevelopment of St Fagans will come to fruition, and in one form or another, archaeology themed displays will find a new place of residence. It waits to be seen what level of prominence this narrative will have in a site that continues to struggle in efforts to shake off long standing associations with folk narratives. Yet this is the climate into which archaeology will, in the future, be seen and explored. Only time will tell if this is going to work out well for archaeology in Wales, and while there are many who have voiced concerns about this shift, we can now only get behind the project, and work hard to ensure that archaeology becomes a centre piece of the new St Fagans, rather a neglected side show, hidden in the background.
For now though, we need think less of the future for a moment, and take advantage of the amazing resource that we have in Wales while we still can. At time of writing there are only 25 days left in which the Origins gallery can be explored. While St Fagans will certainly display some of these collections, it is currently impossible to say when these items will be accessible for public consumption again. The likes of the Capel Garmon firedog, the Roman Leopard Cup, stones from Bryn Celli Ddu, and the ogham marked standing stones, are only a small selection of the world class archaeological collections on display in Cardiff. Wales is culturally richer for their display. Equally, we are worse off for their now inevitable retreat.
At Caerleon, University of South Wales, we have made consistent use of the Origins gallery, in terms of aiding student understanding of the early Wales narrative, but also in the exploration of a wealth of display and interpretation issues. It has been a tremendous and valuable resource on so many levels, and from a very personal perspective, I will sincerely lament the loss this archaeology gallery. So, while you still can, I implore you to visit this gem of a collection, ponder both the archaeological and museological issues, but most of all, enjoy it, as there are few finer displays of archaeology to be had on this island.
The Holy Grail, or the Canton Cup?
It’s been an interesting week for heritage, not least due to the new Heritage Bill for Wales being released for public consultation. However one of the most interesting heritage related headlines to leap out from the pages this week was one to read ‘Christian icon Joseph of Arimathea could be buried in Cardiff’. The word ‘could’ is a fascinating one. Nero 'could' have confided in his beloved pet rat in times of crises, Silbury Hill 'could' have been constructed to act as a landmark to the finest Neolithic restaurant in all of whatever Avebury was referred to as back then, and forks 'could' be used to eat soup, of course none of them did, were or are, but if you were committed enough, then you could make a case for them.
Therein lays the greatest danger of Joseph of Bute, as we should presumably now call him. The things we ‘could’ do with our heritage are fairly inexhaustible, especially if you want to put ethics and reason to one side. The article above goes on to tell readers that this is ‘our’ (Welsh) heritage. Is it though? Is it really? Okay, lets for one minute take off our rationale hats and swap them for our money making hats:
Crook #1 ‘If we want to attract visitors to Cardiff, why don’t we just tell everyone that Joseph of Arimathea is buried here?’
Crook #2 ‘Good point, we can’t prove it, but that doesn’t matter.’
Crook #1 ‘Another good point, because we can’t prove a lot of things, but we can still say they happened right?’
Shortly after we can expect the Cardiff City sightseeing bus tour to suddenly call in at the burial place of Owain Glyn Dwr (conveniently buried directly under the pub of the same name, so ‘they’ say), metal shavings reputed to have splintered from Excalibur itself (new to the Origins gallery in the National Museum) and the final resting place of Madoc’s hat, washed up in Cardiff Bay. If you don’t take an ethical position on anything, we really could say and sell anything we wanted to about Welsh history.
Does this sound a little extreme? Perhaps, but the other story to catch my attention this week might make us think about this issue for a little longer. China and the £58m Jibaozhai Museum, which was recently forced to close its doors to the public following a scandalous revelation that the majority of the artefacts displayed, were cheap fakes. Some wonderful quotes from the senior museum staff suggest that ‘some’ of the 40,000 objects were real, but not many. It would appear that this ‘institution’ has come to embody the very worst of museum corruption and deceit – morals and museum ethics have no place here, as the development of an attractive product seems to have consumed everyone involved. International condemnation and general mockery followed shortly after the story broke.
So, with China in mind, let the cautionary tale of the museum that got caught out for misleading all of its visitors be a reminder. We certainly could say all sorts of enticing things about Welsh history and its connections to the world, indeed we can do that perfectly well with our legitimate and proven historical narratives, but let’s leave Joseph of Arimathea where he belongs, wherever that might be: it is certainly not in Cardiff City centre. We do not need to pretend, or need try to dupe anyone else into thinking anything other than that, and were we to do so, we would deserve the exact same scale of international mockery and derision faced by the Jibaozhai Museum does now.
This was first published on the wonderful
Journal of Victorian Culture Online:
The campaign to save the Hayes Island Victorian toilets is ongoing, and anyone wishing to support the campaign is encouraged to add their names to the petition at:https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/cardiff-council-to-save-the-hayes-victorian-toilets
The historic landscape is a finite resource. While the British conservation and restoration community has become particularly adept at adapting the built landscape for contemporary needs and demands, once an element of the historic landscape is changed, or lost entirely, it cannot return (or be replaced). While structures can be rebuilt, they are no longer the original or authentic structure that was first attributed a sense of historic value. In a period of economic decline, the pressures faced by the historic environment have shifted somewhat dramatically. Whereas in times of fiscal stability the museums and heritage sector have seen relatively positive levels of support, in the days of the triple dip recession, it is arguable that it is the museums and heritage sites that are amongst those to be first in the firing line. Monitor the news feed from organisations such as the @MuseumsAssociation and daily accounts of cuts and closures among museums across the United Kingdom can be found. For British heritage, these are precarious times.
This has been clearly illustrated over the last few weeks in two of Wales’ most prominent cities, Cardiff and Newport. For Newport, threatened closure of the city’s temporary art exhibition programme has largely been interpreted as a move to close the entire museum and art gallery site, the popular and historic Chartist mural is threatened with destruction, while local councillors have discussed the ‘disposal’ of the city’s remarkably well preserved medieval ship. For Cardiff, while the museum sector has been one to actually benefit financially in recent years with the establishment and continued support for the excellent Cardiff Story Museum, recentspending cuts announced by the city council illustrate real threats to the wider historic environment and character of the city. Flat Holm Island for instance, popular for both its natural landscape and its significant nineteenth-century military defences, faces a withdrawal of council support and ultimate closure. Furthermore, in the heart of the city centre (an area to have witnessed sweeping development-led changes in the last decade), a unique reminder of Cardiff’s Victorian era is earmarked for closure. The site in question is the last of Cardiff’s Victorian toilets.
Established in 1898, the Victorian toilets, located in the middle of the Hayes Island in the centre of Cardiff, stand as an indication of the growth and investment that came into the city during this period. The latter half of the nineteenth century saw communities across the South Wales region benefit substantially from the wealth derived from industrial exploitation in the country. Fiscal and population growth created both opportunity and demand in a burgeoning city, and the Hayes Island toilets remain as a legacy of this crucial period in the city’s development.
Over a century later, and these historic yet functional public facilities are facing their end. As Cardiff City Council looks to implement £22million worth of spending cuts, the Victorian toilets, now in their 125th year of existence, are one of a number of public services due to close. In an era of social media led campaigns, many of the proposals put forward by the council for savings have been met with vocal opposition. Cuts to Cardiff’s riding school, the Splott swimming pool and a Welsh language festival have all seen campaigns develop around them in order to fight for their survival. The Victorian toilets were not overlooked.
Started by local enthusiast John Jenkins, the Victorian toilets found an unlikely promotional platform in the form of the personified twitter account @Victorianloo. Tweeting in a first person capacity, the ‘Victorianloo’ tapped into the audience potential of ‘celebrity’ users, with historians Mary Beard and Tom Holland among those to put their names forward in support of a campaign to save the site. Coupled with two online petitions and a flurry of local media coverage, these historic toilets soon attracted widespread support from across Cardiff, while also garnering attention from afar afield as Canada and Australia.
At the heart of the rational for saving the toilets were three main themes, those of historic significance, the character of the city and the functional importance of the toilets. The latter issue probably proved to be the most contentious during the campaign, with disability rights campaigners asking the valid question, why should a site that is not accessible to all be publically funded? It is difficult to contest the problem that the Hayes Island Victorian toilets are indeed inaccessible to many, with wheelchair access to the toilets seemingly inconceivable regardless of how the site is maintained or developed in future years. Yet this factor is significant for a different reason. The needs and perceptions of practicality have seen to the gradual demise of such historic sites. Whereas once the underground Victorian toilet would have been a comparatively common feature, the example left in Cardiff is now unique; there are no more to save once this one has gone.
In general terms, the significance and quality of the complex has not been overlooked. The Welsh historic environment service, Cadw, designated the public conveniences as a Grade 2 listed building due to the rare level of preservation quality at the site, exceptional in part due to the removal of so many other such sites. With a strong sense of irony, the level of importance placed on the toilets had been reinforced by the previous city council with a full restoration of the toilet interiors having only been completed in 2009 at a cost of £148,000. While the restoration was celebrated by local council representatives at the time, it seems that in the space of only four years, the same toilets are no longer worthy of continued support.
As stressed in the opening of this article, these are difficult financial times, and spending cuts are a seeming necessity for everyone to cope with. However, the closure of the Hayes Island Victorian toilets would remove from Cardiff a unique legacy of its growth. Granted there are probably few among the many people who visit and make use of the toilets on a daily basis who stop to think of what these conveniences represent. Were they to, they might begin to realise that these toilets are one of the very last examples of Victorian enhancement left in the city to still function as intended by its designers. Practical, historic and an objet d’art of the toilet world, the Victorian toilets in Cardiff must be safeguarded. What they add to the character and history of Cardiff is difficult to value, while their loss would only further add to the gradual homogenisation of the city centre. It is therefore hoped that with the support of those who value what remains of the Victorian architectural legacy in the city, Cardiff City Council may yet be persuaded to review their plans, and allow for this little underground corner of Victorian Cardiff to live on for another 125 years.