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Social Change: Museums Reflecting Changing Identities

John Williams-Davies and Beth Thomas on how open-air museums emerged during an age of unprecedented social change and were highly relevant institutions which enabled people to find a sense of identity in unsettling times. Today the changes facing society are equally far-reaching and arguably far more complex given the globalised and fluid world in which we live. Enabling people to explore their identities is still a valid and worthwhile objective. Allowing them to participate in defining those identities is the greatest challenge facing open-air museums today.

Identity, particularly national identity, has been a central concern for folk museums and the open-air museums which developed from them since their inception. Indeed when such museums first emerged in Scandinavia during the third quarter of the nineteenth century they were specifically created to preserve and promote national identity. The mission statement of the first true folk museum, the Nordiska Museet which opened in Stockholm in 1873, was, ‘to present a concise picture of a nation’s life and culture – the traditional culture and native way of life.’ The Norske Folkemuseum in Norway was even more explicit and saw its role as, ‘preserv[ing] and disseminat[ing] Norwegian culture …. By focussing on everyday life and creat[ing] a notion of what constitutes Norwegian identity’, while the Maihaugen open-air museum, also in Norway, saw itself as a ‘home for Norwegianess’.

These museums, and others like them, were the museological manifestation of a far wider cultural movement sweeping Europe at that time. It was a reaction to the rapid social and economic changes in the wake of industrialisation and urbanisation which were perceived as threatening a cherished way of life. In Britain, where the forces of industrialisation and urbanisation were probably at their strongest, there was an upsurge in scholarly interest in subjects such as folklore, customs, folksongs and dialects. This general enthusiasm for folk life also extended to material culture, where the collection of ‘everyday antiquities’ or ‘bygones’ was becoming a fashionable activity which ultimately found its way into the museum world.

In Scandinavia, however, this romanticisation and nostalgia for a lost way of life was reinforced by an upsurge in nationalism. In the Nordic countries, the late nineteenth century had been a time of great political upheaval. Norway had gained its full independence from Sweden and Finland had secured its independence from Russia. Similarly, both Denmark and Germany had been involved in wars which had resulted in significant changes to their national boundaries. Naturally enough these ‘new’ countries looked to their past to create a sense of nationhood amongst their people and particularly so to the rural peasant way of life which was deemed to be the purest form of national identity. This creation of a sense of continuity between past and present was the main motivation for the founders of the earliest open-air museums and the museums they founded formed part of the ideological creation of the modern nation.

National identity was also a live issue in Wales at this time. By the 1880s, the Welsh people were becoming increasingly aware of Wales’ national distinctiveness. One manifestation of this was a growing demand for the creation of national institutions, which included a national museum. After decades of debate the National Museum of Wales received its Royal Charter in 1907, an event described by Lord Pontypridd, the Museum’s first President, as ‘a monument to the healthy nationalism of the Welsh people’. The National Museum as an institution therefore is immensely important to the people of Wales in that, as one of Wales’s first national institutions, it played a crucial part during the twentieth century in the emergence of modern Welsh national identity.

This was even more true in the case of the Welsh Folk Museum (as it then was) which opened at St Fagans in 1948. From the outset it has had a huge emotional appeal for the Welsh people who see it as ‘their’ museum. The same factors of romanticism and nationalism, given added urgency by the decline of the Welsh language, were certainly the key drivers behind its foundation. Dr Iorwerth Peate, the museum’s first Curator, a prominent author, poet and nationalist, was unequivocal in his view that the museum was to be a catalyst for the renewal of national pride and national identity. He saw the museum playing a crucial role in the political education of the Welsh people, a ‘panacea’ for all the nation’s perceived ills and a source of national renaissance. It was to be ‘a home for new life’ and a ‘means of visiting every movement in our land into national identity.’

The vision of Welshness espoused by Peate would have been familiar to his Scandinavian mentors and was firmly based on his own upbringing in rural Montgomeryshire. It was rooted in the concept of Gwerin, the Welsh equivalent to the German Volk or people, which has none of the pejorative connotations of the word folk as it is used in British English. Significantly the Welsh name for St Fagans, Amgueddfa Werin Cymru (literally Museum of the Gwerin of Wales), has remained unchanged throughout its existence, despite two name changes in English in order to distance the museum from ‘folksiness’. Despite Peate’s own declaration that ‘gwerin’ referred to the ‘whole community or nation, and not merely part of it’, the Gwerin reflected initially at St Fagans represented an idealised version of the society in which Peate grew up. The Gwerin were rural dwelling, Welsh-speaking, Non-conformist in religion and Liberal in politics. Peate tirelessly promoted this view of ‘true’ Welshness right up to the time of his retirement from the museum in the 1970s. There is no doubt that this ideal was hugely influential, particularly so amongst the Welsh-speaking communities of the rural heartland, and the image it conveyed was accepted as the ‘Welsh way of life’ for generations.

Had this highly romanticised image of Wales ever been true it certainly was not the case by the 1970s. Wales was one of the first countries in the world to be industrialised and indeed as early as the Census of 1841 had a greater proportion of its people employed in industry than in agriculture. The vast majority of the population lived in towns and cities. As early as 1911 Welsh speakers had become the minority in Wales; by the middle of the century religious observance was in steep decline, with the Non-conformist denominations being particularly badly affected, and the Labour Party now dominated local and national politics.

Not surprisingly there was a growing, if belated, reaction to the image of Welshness promoted by the museum, articulated most clearly by an influential group of young social historians which emerged during the late sixties and early seventies. Their background could not have been more different to that of Peate. They came predominantly from the industrial valleys of south Wales, were socialist and internationalist in outlook, secular and most importantly of all perhaps, mostly English-speaking. Their view of the museum was encapsulated in an article written in 1981 by Hywel Francis who dismissed St Fagans as an anachronistic irrelevance, noting that, ‘It’s all about Welsh dance, music, costume, barns, crafts, coracles, carts and idyllic sterilised whitewashed cottages.”

Interestingly the rejection of St Fagans’ version of Welshness was not confined to intellectual circles. Unconsciously perhaps, the people of Wales were also beginning to question the relevance of the museum to their own lives. A focus group meeting at the museum elicited the following response from one participant: ‘It does not represent my Wales at all. My Wales is black faces and hob-nailed boots, gas lamps.’ This disillusionment manifested itself in the clearest possible way in a steady decline in visitors.

The museum itself had been acutely aware of the shortcomings of its depiction of Welsh life for some time and had put in place research and collections policies to enable it to address them. As is the norm with open-air museums, dependent as they often are on the acquisition of suitable buildings to enable them to tell particular stories, there was a significant time lag before this new approach could be implemented. The first public manifestation of this change of direction therefore did not occur until the mid-1980s with the re-erection of the Rhyd-y-car terrace of iron workers’ houses from the industrial town of Merthyr Tydfil. The original terrace had been built in 1805, but it was decided to re-erect and display the houses in roughly fifty year time gaps to reflect changes in working class living conditions in the south Wales valleys over two centuries, from 1805 to 1985.

The impact was as sudden as it was dramatic. The decline in visitor numbers was reversed and the public perception of the Museum was transformed. By this one act we had made ourselves relevant to the population of our immediate hinterland and by bringing our buildings up to date had also engaged with a much younger audience. Visitor numbers increased substantially and have remained at that higher level ever since.

These developments of course mirror the emergence of social history curatorship since the 1970s, with what Cathy Ross describes as its ‘mission to rescue’. Open-air/folk museums had originally been a reaction to the threat to a cherished rural way of life as a result of industrialisation. By the 1970s and 80s we were reacting to the sense of loss created by the de-industrialisation of many Welsh communities and the role that those communities had played in creating a particular Welsh identity – an identity which has since become as romanticised as Peate’s ‘gwerin’. Interestingly, the open-air museums which emerged in England during this much later period hark back to the industrial/urban past, not a rural one as in Wales and elsewhere in Europe.

The inclusion of urban and industrial Wales in the stories we told was only the beginning of a process of transformation and renewal. St Fagans found itself having to adapt to a completely new set of demands generated by the accelerating pace of change and globalisation. Faced with the challenge of reflecting a Wales which included newly arrived social and linguistic groups, culturally fragmented communities and the growth of urban, Welsh-speaking middle classes who did not identify with Peate’s rural gwerin, we found ourselves having to reconsider what the museum was trying to do and how we should do it. Effectively there had to be a shift in our conception of Welsh identity and the way we presented it. Originally open-air museums saw their role as being unifying agents presenting cultural variation as a common culture. This is no longer a viable option. It is now accepted that identity is not fixed and has to be seen as being constantly under construction, a concept which demands a far more sophisticated approach to interpretation. This includes addressing issues such as social inclusion, diversity and engaging the public in the development of content.

The first opportunity to tackle these issues came with the refurbishment of one of the Museum’s three indoor galleries. A decision was made to use the gallery as a flexible, experiential and experimental display space devoted to exploring issues relating to Welsh identities, past and present. The challenge was to deliver this objective without alienating stakeholders who were loyal to Peate’s original vision for the Museum. Peate’s aim had been to create a museum that would unify Welsh culture, giving it one voice. Our starting point was to emphasise that there is no such thing as one Welsh identity – there are many. Around the theme of ‘Perthyn’ or ‘Belonging’, we wanted to experiment with creating a meeting point for differing ideas of Welshness. The aim of the exhibition was to explore how our sense of who we are is shaped by many factors and is constantly evolving.

Public engagement and consultation became a central part of the planning of the new gallery exhibition. Community groups and individuals were invited to curate displays. The result is an exhibition which has no unified perspective, rather a range of views, experiences and values. The voice of the curator is one among many.

Evaluation suggests that we have started a process of renewal which has generally been well received. The commonest reaction to the displays could be encapsulated in the following quote from a respondent: ‘It shows the variety there is in Wales without playing down our Welshness too much’.

It has provided a forum where we can continue a dialogue with the public as to how St Fagans should represent Wales in its future development. It is a gallery about debate. As such it has been a valuable precursor to a much more ambitious project which will create a blueprint for the development of St Fagans for the foreseeable future.

Following an extensive public consultation exercise held between 2002-05 Amgueddfa Cymru launched its Vision for the future – ‘a world-class museum of learning’. A key component of this Vision is the creation of a national history museum at St Fagans which is intended to transform our understanding of Welsh history. The archaeological collections will be re-located from the National Museum in the centre of Cardiff to St Fagans to enable us to tell the stories of the peoples of Wales from the earliest times to the present day at the one site. There has been a call for such a museum in Wales for a number of years.

The idea of creating a museum of national history is quite rightly viewed with suspicion in many quarters given the manipulation of history by such institutions in the past. This suspicion would indeed be justified if the aim was to present one single grand national narrative promoting an idealised national cultural norm. This is not what we intend to do at St Fagans. The very idea of a single unified, and unifying, narrative about who we are and where we come from has been compromised and can no longer be defended intellectually. The past is now very much open to contestation. To quote the Welsh historian Dai Smith, ‘Wales is a singular noun, but a plural experience.’ And this is the approach that we will be adopting in our displays. We will be presenting multiple stories reflecting the different experiences of the peoples who have over the centuries made Wales their home.

Some may argue that a multiplicity of perspectives might not necessarily provide a more objective view of Wales than that promoted in Iorwerth Peate’s vision. However, this would be missing the point which is to make people aware of their own subjectivity and to question interpretations of the past, and be part of creating history themselves. Clifford Geertz defined culture as the ‘stories we tell ourselves about ourselves’. In many ways museums are places where we create the stories we need at particular points in history, St Fagans should be the means by which the people of Wales create what the eminent historian Gwyn A Williams called a ‘a usable past, to turn the past into an instrument with which the present can build a future’.

Open-air museums emerged during an age of unprecedented social change and were highly relevant institutions which enabled people to find a sense of identity in unsettling times. Today the changes facing society are equally far-reaching and arguably far more complex given the globalised and fluid world in which we live. Enabling people to explore their identities is still a valid and worthwhile objective. Allowing them to participate in defining those identities is the greatest challenge facing open-air museums today.

John Williams-Davies, Director of Collections and Research, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Beth Thomas, Keeper of Social & Cultural History, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

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