St Fagans National Museum of History (St Fagans) is Wales’ most popular heritage attraction and one of the best-known open-air museums in Europe. In 2019 we completed a major £30 million development project to become Wales’ National Museum of History, opening new galleries and workshop spaces and transforming our visitor experience. But this development was not about improving buildings but about social benefit. The aim to create history ‘with’ people rather than ‘for’ people, placed cultural democracy and public benefit at the centre of our work. The Museum remained open throughout the development, welcoming 3 million visitors to explore the changes as they happened. An imaginative public programme engaged 720,0000 people in shaping the transformation. For this innovative approach St Fagans won Art Fund Museum of the Year in 2019.
St Fagans is one of seven museums that form Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. Established in 1948, the same year as the NHS and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, St Fagans aimed to interpret culture through the everyday lives of the people of Wales. Seventy years on, we have placed cultural rights and public participation even more firmly at centre stage. In adopting a rights-based approach to our work we have focus on three strategic areas: cultural participation, cultural representation, and cultural agency. Being free to all people of all backgrounds is not enough on its own to eliminate barriers and inequality. Our collections and their interpretations are not diverse. As we work towards cultural democracy, we continue to explore different collecting and programming models, more inclusive interpretive methods, and ways of diversifying our workforce. Providing platforms for different cultures and voices to co-exist is complex and often contentious. Ensuring cultural agency and a voice in decision-making is essential for cultural rights to be fully realised but providing fair and equitable access to our resources is not without its challenges. We are working towards different governance models and as part of this organisational change, challenging where power and control sit and are managed.
This new vision for St Fagans involved people across Wales in the process of its creation; consulting with over 120 organisations and collaborating with young people, artists, craftspeople, teachers, academics and community groups to re-imagine the Museum. Together we made decisions about new spaces and content, collected objects, developed narratives around collections, and got involved in the construction work. We developed new long-term partnerships, particularly with organisations supporting people facing the greatest disadvantages.
The development itself became the context for a large-scale public programme engaging people of all ages and backgrounds. This involved over 3,000 volunteers, work placements and apprenticeships; many participating were unemployed, homeless or were recovering from substance misuse. Partners trained our staff and together we delivered initiatives to support people’s confidence, skills, health and well-being. The development engaged over 90,000 school pupils, providing them with an alternative outdoor learning experience. As part of the tender assessment the construction companies were requested to deliver a Community Benefit Plan as part of their work, supporting local skills and knowledge. This alone provided a £27 million overall investment in the Wales and UK economy.
By bringing together Wales’ national collections of archaeology and history we have extended the timeline of St Fagans to over 230,000 years. The development has seen us open three new galleries and transform our visitor experience with a beautiful re-interpretation of the architecture of the main building. This provides an eight-fold increase in dedicated learning spaces and has added two new archaeological constructs to the site. A re-created medieval court, Llys Llywelyn, provides a sleepover experience with a difference for school children. A stunning new building, Gweithdy (Welsh for ‘workshop’), provides a new national centre for creativity and craft skills, offering opportunities for visitors to become makers themselves. Children can now play in an outdoor activity area, designed by young people working with artist Nils Norman, as a playful response to the national collection.
What we have learnt and the future
Culture is a living, breathing process and the new spaces and galleries enable St Fagans to continually evolve and provide contemporary relevance, emphasising that all lives matter. Equality is everyone’s issue. Working early on with our Diversity Forum of external community partners, one of several fora set up to advise us on all aspects of development, we acknowledged that the collection is not diverse enough. The Diversity Forum found that the collection was weakest in its representation of disabled people and black communities in Wales. We currently are prioritising work in these areas. As we stand with black communities in Wales, declaring that #BlackLivesMatter, we recognise that some of our collections are rooted in colonialism and racism. We have a long way to go to, but together with our community partners and Youth Heritage Leaders, we are diversifying our collections, increasing representation, and contributing to conversations that highlight decolonisation, inequality and racism.
We have learnt that participation is not an end in itself, it needs to be for a purpose. We have also learnt that the way we operate as a museum is as important as the experiences we provide our visitors. Small changes can make a difference. The development gave us an opportunity to experiment with co-production methodologies across all areas of work. Our regret is that we did not embed longitudinal research initiatives alongside this work to capture what worked. Trust and equal partnership working takes time and our active approach to collaborative working is now more focused, maximizes expertise and recognises that shared authority is more effective than institutional control. Deep engagement with vulnerable communities has opened new ways of looking at and framing collections, informed by a concern for social justice, and an awareness of social inequalities. In future initiatives we will ensure community benefits form part of external tender requirements and will give even greater consideration to a foundational economy approach. This will keep work and skills development local.
The pandemic has significantly changed the world we live in within the space of a few months. The needs of our users and audiences have obviously changed. We have started working with our partners to consider how we can best support and serve communities in Wales, and help people make sense of what is happening during these challenging times. As a national museum, we have a duty to represent the ever-changing manifestation of cultures in Wales. Now more than ever, we must play a role in protecting the cultural rights of the diverse peoples of Wales. We have developed a museum Wales can be proud of on an international stage. In the words of Stephen Deuchar, Art Fund director and chair of the judges:
‘St Fagans lives, breathes and embodies the culture and identity of Wales. A monument to modern museum democracy, it has been transformed through a major development project involving the direct participation of hundreds of thousands of visitors and volunteers … This magical place was made by the people of Wales for people everywhere, and stands as one of the most welcoming and engaging museums anywhere in the UK.’
The Best in Heritage
The world's only survey of award-winning museum, heritage and conservation projects.
European Heritage Association
Trg kralja Petra Krešimira IV, 7
© Copyright 2002-2017 The Best In Heritage. All rights reserved.
Developed by Edulogic