Ideas

Diffusing Interpretative Authority and Curatorial Narrative - by Steph Mastoris

Over the last 40 years many museums have been established dedicated to celebrating the technology, life and landscape of individual industries, or localities and regions within the UK. Generally, two methods of interpretation are used in these museums in various combinations: explaining the technology of industry, and providing a “taste” of what life in an industrial community was like in its heyday. The first method tends to be very object-centred and technically-focussed, while the second often attempts to give the visitor an immersive environmental experience. In both the authority of the historical narrative is fairly fixed: definitive information is given out through the object label or from the mouth of the demonstrator. The National Waterfront Museum in Swansea has attempted to break out from this mould in a thoughtful and elegant way that capitalises upon the benefits of interactive new media to provide a more diffused authority in its interpretative narrative. 

The National Waterfront Museum is run by Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales in partnership with City and County of Swansea. It is located in the heart of Swansea’s historic Maritime Quarter. The museum was designed by architects Wilkinson Eyre and the displays created by Land Design Studio. It was developed at a cost of £33.68m and opened on 17 October 2005. To date, it has attracted over 2 million visitors. Created from a refurbished late-Victorian warehouse and new build galleries, the museum provides a multi-faceted insight into the effects of industrialisation and maritime trading on the people of Wales and beyond. The storylines begin in the eighteenth century and continue to the present in order to provide an understanding of where Wales is today and what its future might hold. It is one of a family of seven museums across Wales. The project was the culmination of the Industrial Strategy, devised in the 1990s by Amgueddfa Cymru which has previously led to the redevelopment of the National Slate Museum, Llanberis, the National Coal Museum/Big Pit, Blaenafon; and the National Wool Museum, Dre-fach Felindre.

The new museum’s origins lay in the decision in 1998 by Amgueddfa Cymru to close its Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum in Cardiff Bay and to find a partner to create a new type of museum in a new location. One of the principal reasons for deciding to close the museum in Cardiff was that it had literally been built around a number of large industrial objects. What this meant was that the museum had absolutely no flexibility or opportunity for change, and visitor numbers were falling. In developing the proposals for the new museum it became clear that there were a number of key issues which had to be addressed. These included relevance and appeal to both genders and a wide range of social and age groups, as well as the need for more open-ended and flexible learning to take place by children and adults inside the museum. This pointed to the need for a dynamic approach to interpretation where interactive IT-driven media could deliver a wide range of content that was arranged thematically rather than chronologically, and where a human rather than a technological storyline could be presented. As three other museums within Amgueddfa Cymru already looked at the major Welsh industries of coal mining, slate quarrying and woollen weaving by means of preserved historic sites and machinery with lively and engaging human interpretation, it was felt that a cooler, more kaleidoscopic approach could be used in providing an overview of the last three centuries of industry and innovation throughout the whole of Wales.

The overall result has been that the National Waterfront Museum provides an historical analysis of industrialisation, rather than of industry. The real focus is on how people and communities in Wales have been created, shaped and affected by the processes of technological and industrial change. In such a vast and complex story overarching chronologies and comprehensive narratives are impossible and rather than even attempt to do this, the museum’s displays adopt a more synoptic approach, using 15 broad, general themes. These include the mineral wealth of the land, landscape, the sea, communications networks, communities and organisations, along with the working day and retailing. A major section looks at upcoming technologies and innovation in Wales today. 

Within each thematic section collections are grouped to provide small case studies. In the “Sea” section four contrasting Welsh ports are discussed, while the “Communities” section is divided into areas dealing with belief, learning, recreation and home-life. Generally the quantity of artefacts displayed is minimal and an inter-disciplinary approach has been used for their selection. Many items from the social history collections are used to develop the frequent human storylines and a degree of lateral thinking has been employed. For instance, a leather trouser belt is used as a point of departure in discussing the nature (and violence) of patriarchy in nineteenth-century industrial homes.

This approach is not without its drawbacks. After two years of evaluation and visitor observation there does seem to be a need for a basic timeline into which the broad array of periods discussed can be placed. Also, there is a perceived need for a reference point to explain the overall spatial relationships of natural resources, industrial activity and the landscape of Wales. These will be fairly easy to provide but when they are added to the displays care will be taken not to diminish their overall sense of selectivity, for it is this that provides one of the key elements of diffused authority in the narrative. 

Even to the most casual of visitor it is clear that the displays at the Waterfront make no attempt to tell the “whole story” about any of the subjects dealt with. Such open-ended interpretation is greatly enhanced by the multiple layers of information that can be accessed through the interactive information pods. In over half of the thematic sections visitors can work through two or three levels of data, delivered by touch-screen new media displays. In this way the interpretation of the artefacts on display, are aided by a wide variety of historical source material, including photographs, topographical prints and drawings, maps, spoken testimony and transcripts of manuscript records. 

The most extensive use of this layering of information is found in the “People” section. This uses a selection of people and places in Swansea listed in the 1851 census to demonstrate the complexity of the urban communities created by industrialisation. What starts as a fairly traditional, local history-type of display featuring artefacts, images and written texts about a number of people who typified the working life of the town develops into a far more dynamic learning experience by use of three interactive installations in the middle of the gallery. Here a selection of locations within the historic town can be investigated firstly by travelling through a virtual reconstruction of Swansea in 1851, then through the information contained in the 1851 census about the residents of each property. A virtual room has been recreated for each building and this can be investigated on screen. Photographs of artefacts on display are imbedded within these environments and these can then be viewed in the round before a short spoken discussion of the context of the artefact and its link to the person featured in the census. Besides being very engrossing in itself, this system of interactive interpretation allows visitors to choose the level of information to be provided for each item on display, as well as introducing them to the wide range of historical sources that can aid our understanding of an artefact and its context. It becomes clear very quickly that there is a vast body of information available through the touch-screens, and although some of this has been processed by the curators, a large amount of raw historical data is also on offer. This encourages visitors to come to their own conclusions and indeed challenge the thrust of the curatorial narrative.

A recent study of visitors to the “People” section suggests that these learning outcomes are taking place. One barrier to this was found to occur where the visitor is not confident to use the interactive touch screens. However, given the simplicity with which the technology can be used, many of these visitors quickly learn the techniques of interaction, either by themselves, through the help of the museum’s Gallery Assistants, or even by inter-generational learning. There have been several reported instances where young children have taught much older people how to access fully the on-screen information.

With the same approach of layered information used throughout the museum (though delivered in different ways) each visitor is able to assemble an individual historical narrative for Welsh industrialisation as they progress through the displays. This open-ended approach provides much food for thought and stimulates further personal discovery and learning. It also seems to encourage repeat visits, as it is impossible to access all the on-screen information in one day.

For about a year after the opening of the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea there was a small but steady stream of visitors from the immediate locality asking staff, “Where’s the woollen mill?” They were referring to an exhibit in the former Swansea Industrial and Maritime Museum that had occupied part of the site from 1977 to 2002. This had comprised working machinery from the Abbey Woollen Mill, in nearby Neath which had been operated on the upper floor of the museum and produced traditional Welsh woollen nursing shawls for sale in the shop. 

This combination of evocative old technology and heritage retailing was obviously a powerful draw for the users of the old museum, and at first it was very hard to match it with the elegantly-minimal, IT-driven displays of the new National Waterfront Museum. However, as these visitors returned a number of times and got to explore the themed displays, their requests for the woollen mill have dwindled away and most now praise the museum for its variety and its engaging and thought-provoking displays. 

This story could be read as one of popular concern at the loss of a familiar exhibit being mitigated by smart new technology. But it also suggests that a more dynamic and open-ended method of interactive interpretation, combining artefacts and a wide range of historical sources, can be more engaging and personally empowering than the raw emotive power of working machinery.

Steph Mastoris
Head, National Waterfront Museum, Swansea - Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales