Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales was founded in 1907. It currently operates seven museums throughout Wales, which together attract 1.4 million visits a year. One of the subject areas that the Museum covers is industrial history, and for the past ten years it has been pursuing a pound;50 million strategy for interpreting Welsh industry. This has included redeveloping three of its existing industrial museums - the National Slate Museum at Llanberis, the National Wool Museum at Drefach-Felindre, and the National Coal Museum at Blaenafon - together with creating a new Collections Centre at Nantgarw, and a major new synoptic industrial and maritime museum in Swansea.
The history of Wales from 1750 to 1950 was shaped by two industries, iron and coal. These were the characteristic materials of the Industrial Revolution and the main products of the South Wales valleys. The collieries and ironworks of South Wales were of huge international signifi cance for more than 150 years, with iron from Welsh furnaces used across the fi ve continents. The South Wales coalfi eld reached its peak output of 57 million tonnes in 1913, with 271,000 men working in 620 mines. After that time the industry declined, and there is only one working deep coal mine in Wales today. The international importance on the Blaenafon area of south-east Wales for these two industries was recognised in 2000 by its designation as a World Heritage Site.
Big Pit coal mine in Blaenafon dates from 1860 but most of the surface buildings are later in date. They remain almost exactly as they were when coal production ended in 1980. The present headgear dates from 1921, the Miners' Baths and Canteen from 1939, and the Engine House from 1952. The site was opened as a museum in 1983 and was highly successful at fi rst, but the private trust which ran it could not attract funding for development. The site was taken over by National Museum Wales in 2001 as the National Coal Museum, at the same time as a pound;7 million redevelopment project was agreed and funded. Big Pit is the only coal mining museum in the UK with underground access, with underground tours led by ex-miners, which 95of visitors go on.
In 2001, the surface buildings required a lot of conservation, and the site offered little interpretation for the surface areas. The conservation and re-interpretation programmes therefore included conserving all the surface buildings, building a new administration and research centre, building a new store and conservation centre, and adding very substantially to the interpretation in the form of large new galleries telling the story of coal and mining techniques, its use, and most importantly the lives of the people who worked in the industry. We have brought the story up to date, including discussing the great Miners' Strike of 1984.
The new presentations also explain what happens above ground at a mine, and coupled with a cafeacute; and shop, allow visitors to stay much longer at the site. The new interpretation includes a mix of techniques, with an audio-visual show as well as traditional museum displays, and visitors can see conservation work as it happens. Those interested can see the museum collections or carry out further research on the history of the industry. The intention is to have something of interest to all, and an interpretive technique that will interest them. Large numbers of schoolchildren in organised groups visit the site, including many from France.
The redevelopment work was completed in late 2004, and safeguarded 55 direct jobs as well as contributing substantially to the local economy. Over 150,000 people visited the site in 2005-6, an increase of 50on the years before the work was done. The Museum won the Gulbenkian UK Museum of the Year Award 2005.
National Museum Wales also owns the land on which a private railway preservation society operates, and co-operating with this society is one clear possible development for the future, as is more joint marketing with the other heritage attractions in the Blaenafon area. A World Heritage Interpretation Centre is currently being developed in the town, which will link with others worldwide. In the near future, we hope to tell more community stories and examine sustainable alternative fuels.
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