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Authors:Andrew Sawyer:
Sheila Watson:
Publication title:National Museums in Wales
Conference:Building National Museums in Europe 1750-2010. Conference proceedings from EuNaMus; European National Museums: Identity Politics; the Uses of the Past and the European Citizen; Bologna 28-30 April 2011. EuNaMus Report No. 1
Publication type: Abstract and Fulltext
Article No.:039
Abstract:This report considers national museums in Wales. Welsh MPs have sat at Westminster since the early sixteenth century; and the country was integrated with England to a greater extent than other nations making up the UK. In addition; there are strong contrasts between the rural centre and north of the country and the industrial south. The country is very mountainous which has affected its development.

Nationalism in Wales reflected this; and is outlined in the Introduction. For a range of reasons; including conquest by the English in the medieval period; and the Tudor incorporation of Welsh leaders into the English elite; together with the country’s shared border with southern England; nationalism in Wales was less strident than that in Scotland and Ireland. For reasons explored below; there was something of a rift between the Anglican Church; which became associated with the English; and ‘Dissenters’ who were associated with Welshness. In the nineteenth century; the mineral reserves of South Wales; especially coal; led to an industrial revolution that provided employment for many Welsh people (and drew in English immigrants). As with other British nations; the experience of the Second World War helped develop a shared unity with the rest of the UK. Nevertheless; Welsh culture; which varied somewhat in different areas; remained distinctive; especially obvious in language and music.

Some of the reasons for the rise of nationalism are explored in the report. Welsh nationalism is complex and is usually defined as a form of cultural and ethnic nationalism that emphasises language; songs; literature and poetry; along with Welsh antiquities and the idea of the Welsh associated with the landscape and territory of Wales. In the nineteenth century this began to take a more political form though always within the notion of Wales remaining within the United Kingdom. It made little headway in the first half of the twentieth century as Britain fought and won two World Wars. In the 1970s it failed to gain enough support to prompt legislation giving more powers to Wales; but in 1997 a referendum resulted in a small majority in favour of devolution. An Act of Parliament implemented this in 1998. Since then; the Welsh Assembly has had direct responsibility for funding and policy for national museums in Wales.

The early history of national museums in Wales can be traced to the activities of learned societies. These had many features in common with similar activities by elite groups elsewhere in Britain; they were formed in Wales and were made up of Welsh people. Elements of Welsh culture – literature; song; poetry; the Welsh language and antiquities – were therefore prominent; as well as scientific subjects; especially those relating to science and industry; which might have more in common with British scholarly activities. Later; museums became implicated in the civic competition between leading towns in the country; where sections of the local elites regarded museums as positive institutions and a mark of civic pride. When the competition for recognition as ‘capital’ of Wales became an issue; civic leaders similarly saw the possession of a major museum as an advantage. In these early years; Welsh nationalism was rarely explicit in the founding of museums. In this Wales resembles; to a certain extent; Scotland; where the idea of a national museum was; for some time; a museum in a capital city.

The gaining of national status (the National Museum of Wales was granted its charter in 1907) was therefore not in itself associated with driving nationalism. Nevertheless; by the time the Museum opened in 1912 ‘[T]he promotional literature of the Museum; the coverage in the local press and even the speech by the British Monarch himself all point towards a a more public acceptance of Welsh distinctiveness’ (Mason 2007a: 134). To what extent the development of a national institution such as the Museum in Cardiff contributed to this increased interest in Welshness and to what extent it reflected it is impossible to say. In the succeeding decades; the National Museum (NMW or in Welsh; ‘Amgueddfa Cymru’) established strong links with regional museums; and incorporated some other museums into its structure. In outline; the National Roman Legion Museum; Caerleon; dated back to the nineteenth century; but was incorporated into the National Museum in 1930; St Fagans; a folk park; was set up as part of the museum; in 1948; the National Woollen Museum was opened as part of the National Museum in 1976; Big Pit; initially a local authority museum created partly in response to the closure of the coal industry; was incorporated into the National Museum of Wales in 2001; and the National Waterfront Museum; previously a local authority industrial museum; was opened in 2005 as a national museum in a new building in Swansea. Whilst these newer museums often addressed a uniquely Welsh past; it is questionable whether nationalism played a significant role in their development. At the same time; there is a sense in some of the works studied for this report; that successive British governments treated Wales as simply another part of England; and (in some official reports into museums) ignored the National Museum of Wales altogether. By contrast the Welsh Assembly has much more interest and more effective control of heritage organisations in Wales. This gives the National Museum a consciously and distinctly Welsh context in which to operate; responding to more coherent government policies. Nevertheless; the different institutions combining to make the National Museum; present very different aspects of Welsh life and culture.

No. of pages:30
Series:Linköping Electronic Conference Proceedings
ISSN (print):1650-3686
ISSN (online):1650-3740
Publisher:Linköping University Electronic Press; Linköpings universitet

Andrew Sawyer, Sheila Watson (2011). National Museums in Wales , Building National Museums in Europe 1750-2010. Conference proceedings from EuNaMus; European National Museums: Identity Politics; the Uses of the Past and the European Citizen; Bologna 28-30 April 2011. EuNaMus Report No. 1;article=039 (accessed 2/10/2016)