On the move

In the space of few years Nêst Thomas has gone from working to save Gwynedd Museum from closure to unveiling ambitious plans to move it into a new home. Simon Stephens meets her
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Simon Stephens
One of the most significant artefacts for Nêst Thomas at Amgueddfa ac Oriel Gwynedd (Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery) is a Welsh Not, which was found under the floorboards at a school in Bangor.

This large wooden object was hung around the neck of any child who was caught speaking Welsh. It could be transferred to another child if they were found speaking the language and the one who was wearing it at the end of the day would be punished.

For Welsh-speaking Thomas, the object is a powerful symbol of a time when using the language was actively discouraged in schools. The museum’s visitor book shows that this method was also used in Scotland and Brittany to stop children talking in a language of their choice.

The Welsh Not is one of many artefacts in the museum in Bangor that shine a light on the culture and history of this area of north Wales. But these stories were almost lost in 2008 when Gwynedd Museum, the oldest general museum in north Wales, was threatened with closure.

The crisis came about because thecounty council withdrew half of its funding. “We were in dire straits, we had stopped programming and we thought, well, we are closing – we could not see a way forward,” says Thomas, who oversees the museum in her role as principal museums and arts officer for Gwynedd County Council.

But Thomas and her staff were not alone in their fight to keep the museum open.

“In one sense maybe we were fortunate that it happened to us when it did because we were given support,” Thomas says. “It came from everywhere – at a political level and the community.”

The museum secured a grant from Museums, Archives and Libraries Wales (Cymal) to run the museum and to carry out an organisational review and an audience development survey.

The money gave Thomas and her team the time to develop a new business case for the museum. During that period Bangor University, Gwynedd County Council and other stakeholders got together and formed a partnership to help secure the museum’s future.

The museum now receives money from the council and the university. Thomas is thankful that she was given the breathing space to create a new vision for the museum but is concerned that others might not be so lucky. “England has had really severe cuts and they are hitting Wales now,” she says.

“Unless you have been planning what you are going to do, it can almost be a knee-jerk reaction, and you don’t have time to go on this journey that we’ve been on.”

Thomas says the museum is not totally out of the woods and has Cymal funding to look at new governance models. Whichever model is chosen, having new ways to raise funds will be an important part of it. But for now, the council and the university are continuing to fund the museum and its immediate future is secure.

Moving to Bishop’s Palace

And things have turned around to such an extent that work has started on a £2.6m project to move the museum to Bishop’s Palace, a 16th-century timber-framed building that is owned by the council and is close by.

The relocation of Gwynedd Museum, which is being overseen by Thomas’s colleague Esther Roberts, is expected to be complete by autumn 2015. The museum is part of a wider redevelopment that will include the opening later this year of Pontio, Bangor University’s £45m arts and innovation centre.

Thomas says that one of the major aims of the project is to work with communities across Gwynedd to get their input into the museum. This is particularly challenging in such a large rural county.

“We are in Bangor and the city is integral to the story that we are going to tell, but our vision is for all the people of Gwynedd to engage with us because it is their museum,” Thomas says.

“Our community heritage officer has started work on that and we have had lots of feedback and lots of groups want to work with us. It is taking the museum out to the community.”

Another important strand of the relocation is to make more use of the collections owned by the university by improving their documentation and promoting better access to them. Thomas says there is a fantastic natural history collection, as well as ceramics, art, geology and musical instruments.

Obviously, everything in the new museum will be bilingual, which is central to its ethos. “Using the Welsh language is part of engaging people and it is about equality. It means people can access information in the language of their choice.”

As well as Gwynedd Museum, Thomas is responsible for arts provision in Gwynedd and oversees the Lloyd George Museum in Llanystumdwy. This includes the museum itself and the childhood home of the former prime minister, who Thomas believes is a bit of a neglected figure in British history.

“What I think is interesting is that Winston Churchill’s profile is so much higher with world war two whereas people don’t seem to equate Lloyd George with world war one, even though at the time he was held in very high regard.”

National museums strategy

Thomas says that her work with museums is well-supported by Cymal, which provides grants and oversees the 2010 national strategy for museums.

“I think the strategy has been very important and I’m very proud of the way that Wales has been ahead of the game in getting it in place,” Thomas says.

Gwynedd’s other cultural facilities include an art gallery in Caernarfon and cinemas and theatres in Pwllheli and Bala. The council’s Community Arts Unit, which is staffed by one person, also supports and develops community arts projects.

Thomas says the museum and arts service does lots of work in the areas of health and wellbeing. This includes a Happy Museum-funded project, where Gwynedd has joined forces with Bangor University’s Wales Centre for Behaviour Change to develop What’s Your Story?, which is using digital technology to enable visitors to create their own audio tours.

Research is being carried out to look at the effect of these technologies on people’s wellbeing.

There is also Arteffact, a project aimed at people aged 18 and over experiencing stress, depression or anxiety. Participants take a series of artist-led workshops that are held in museums and galleries, with art and artefacts being used for inspiration.

Thomas says she is keen on projects such as this that involve museums and the arts working together. This will be something that should be apparent when the new Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery opens next year.

“The whole idea is to make it far more accessible and engaging, and somewhere that people can feel comfortable in going,” Thomas says. “It is their museum, we are just looking after the collections.”

The unveiling of the new museum will be an important landmark for a museum that was nearly forced to close just a few years ago. The journey Thomas and her team have been on shows how museums can not only be resilient in these difficult economic times, but they can flourish as well.

This year’s Museums Association conference is being held in Cardiff from 9-10 October

Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery at a glance

Amgueddfa ac Oriel Gwynedd (Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery) started off as the Welsh Museum of Antiquities, when it was run by Bangor University. The council took over the running of the museum in 1991 when the university was considering closing it.

The future of the museum was under threat again in 2008 as part of major cuts by Gwynedd County Council. But it was saved following a new funding package involving the university and the local authority.

Work has just started on a £2.6m project to move the museum to Bishop’s Palace, a council owned Grade II-listed building that is close to the existing museum.
Nêst Thomas at a glance

Nêst Thomas took a history degree at Bangor University before joining Gwynedd County Council as a museums development officer in 1986. She has worked for Gwynedd ever since and is now the county’s principal museums and arts officer.

Thomas is a member of the Museum Accreditation Committee, which considers applications under the Accreditation Scheme for museums and galleries in the UK.

She is also a committee member of the Federation of Museums and Art Galleries of Wales.

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