Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Welsh History Month

This month is Welsh history month. Coincidentally it is also the month that I have returned to Wales, to my old stomping ground at Swansea University, to teach British and Imperial history. As part of this, I teach seminars on the primary source led ‘Practice of History Module’ on the theme of Welsh Coal. As you will have probably gathered, my research looks as Welsh coal as the crucial fuel of the Royal Navy – the primary defence of British interests and global trade. Welsh coal is important in other ways too, however. In our seminar discussion, we thought about the question ‘why should we care about the history of Welsh coal?’ A few of my students are Welsh, and are therefore rightly interested in coal as part of their local history. There are obvious reasons why Welsh coal matters to Welsh history. Mining in Wales provided a significant source of income to the economy of Wales throughout the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Moreover, it was a huge employer both in mining and in the industries that serviced it, and large amounts of coal were used in other industries in Wales, notably in ironworks. It was also huge part of the social history of Wales too - during the first half of the nineteenth century mining was often at the centre of working-class discontent. Finally, it has huge effects on Wales today, including the role of trade unions, employment and unemployment, and the effects on the landscape and environment.

But, as my own research shows, Welsh coal was important beyond Wales. Perhaps most crucially it was key to the industrial revolution, and subsequently Britain’s ability to become a huge commercial power. Furthermore, it was important globally. The value of Welsh coal beyond Wales can be seen by the fact that by 1913 Cardiff had become the largest coal exporting port in the world. This was because of the quality of coal found in South Wales, and its steam coal in particular. Indeed, it was ideal as fuel to power the steam engines that drove steamships, Dreadnoughts of the Royal Navy and steam locomotive railways across the world. Thus it had a crucial role in the development of the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Although I have only concentrated on coal, it is clear that when we start to think about other bulk and industrial commodities, Wales again has a strikingly important global role. For example, my colleague Professor Huw Bowen is doing an excellent project which looks at the copper works of Swansea, so important it was known as Copperopolis. You can find more about that here:

As an imperial historian, it is notable how much has been written about Scotland and Ireland’s role in empire, but Wales’ role is only just being unearthed. Hopefully, the parochial view of Wales as a provincial hinterland, a periphery of no importance, will soon be banished. Thus, we should look at Welsh History Month, not as a niche celebration of the local, but as an important reminder of why Welsh history matters for all of us.

For more on Welsh History Month, look here, and follow @HVBowen

Monday, 7 April 2014

On Vikings and large special exhibitions


There isn’t much chance that you were unaware about the Vikings exhibition currently on at the British Museum. The advertising has been everywhere, and several BBC documentaries have covered the issue of seeing beyond Vikings as marauders, but also as peoples with a thriving culture and complex and extensive exchange networks. It is pretty pricey to get in (£16.50 for adults), but that seems to be increasingly the norm in London these days. Perhaps the price is justified by the enormous cost of a new wing, and the huge boat that had to be brought in from Denmark. Even so, such a price brings expectations, which is understandable.
Clearly it has been very popular. The queue for tickets was enormous when I arrived – and even when I got one I had to wait nearly 2 hours until my time slot, which was actually a blessing because I got to have a look around the rest of the museum (more of that later.)

Although I had originally planned to review the exhibition itself, my experience brought up similar feelings as several other expensive large museum shows that I have visited, and thus it perhaps more pertinent to discuss these.

Firstly, a caveat. I realise that these are extremely successful, have millions of visitors, and are crucial to museum’s prosperity. Furthermore, as the rest of the museum is free, they are perhaps more crucial.  However, I have some reservations.

On entering the wing, your tickets are checked, and you are informed that your experience would only be complete with a commentary by Sandi Toksvig. For an extra £4. I declined the kind offer and entered the gallery. Even though tickets are split into time slots, it is instantly clear that because of the way the exhibition starts, this isn’t sufficient to create any sort of flow of people. In fact, the first section, which snakes around some small artefacts, was so tight, and the details so small and low down, that everyone is forced into moving in tiny sidesteps. The Viking poetry over the speakers was a nice touch, and probably only this made it bearable, although not for several children who looked bored and restless 5 minutes in. This situation did not improve, yet, when you have paid that much for a tickets, you are loathed just to skip sections. 

When you reach the main hall, where the ship is held, it becomes clear why this was necessary. This is the grand reveal, and I have seen this technique used elsewhere. You show the punter little bits, some context, then bang – the most famous piece.  But the trouble is, you can’t help but think that if they had started with a big space, you wouldn’t have spent half an hour shuffling along in the hope of seeing something interesting through the crowd.

And therein lies the problem really. In a empty gallery under construction, and when the reviewers go around in small groups, it works brilliantly, but when you get thousands in, most people are irritated by the time they get to it. Perhaps I am a curmudgeon, but I think the visitor experience is crucial to a show. I realise they already have your money, but, even though I thought the show was pretty damned good in content, I would be hesitant to recommend it, and be responsible for anyone having to go through the herding of the first section.

This was brought into focus by what I had experienced during my time waiting for my slot to go in. I visited the revamped gallery that holds the Sutton Hoo treasure. Probably equally as impressive as the Viking exhibits (bar the boat, or what remains of it), I was free to walk around, read all the information and breath easily.  And it was free. As a result I couldn’t help feeling as I left the Viking exhibition that I was unsure which was more worthy of my money.