Who remembers what they were doing at midday on 16 February 2020? Brexit was still making the headlines, the pandemic was just reaching the public consciousness, and I was standing, aghast, in several centimetres of mud and sludge in the basement of Pontypridd Museum. It’s a memory that sticks in the mind.
The day before, the same space had held our event celebrating LGBT+ History Month. The rain had been a little heavier than usual (we are in Wales), but we were content that our trusty pump system would keep things dry, as it had countless times before. However, not even the local authority advance weather warnings had foretold of the severity and widespread disruption Storm Dennis would bring. Now, two years on, Pontypridd Museum is finally open to the public once again, and we are taking stock of what has been an exceptionally challenging period.
Pontypridd Museum is your regular local, social-history museum, with a mixed collection, small team of staff, enthusiastic volunteers and a community proud of its heritage. And in the immediate aftermath of the flood, it was the community that enabled us to prioritise the emergency plan, get material evacuated and put a longer-term plan in place. Whether it was business owners who themselves had been flooded, the wider museum community sending care packages, dehumidifiers and offers of storage, or passers-by who just wanted to see if they could help, the incredible and humbling support was what bolstered us during those tiring early days.
It wasn’t a straightforward recovery operation, so leading in such difficult circumstances required some practical solutions. This was compromised by the fact that I was six months’ pregnant and hadn’t accounted for the possibility in the emergency plan that I would be out of action. Therefore,
I had to quickly divest myself of any heroic ambition, and get down to the task of becoming a power delegator. It meant that everyone led in their own way.
My junior collections colleague took on the role of coordinating the object evacuation, liaising with Glamorgan Archives and Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales) to utilise some of their storage space. My front-of-house colleague worked to organise the volunteers, while I took her place, beached at the front desk, which doubled up as a documentation and public relations headquarters.
People’s hidden talents surfaced when called on in a time of crisis, and I felt my job was to simply enable them to use these talents to best effect. That said, we had to be kind to ourselves and set the right pace – short days, regular breaks and warm clothes were the antidote to burnout.
Having been given the autonomy to lead their part of the recovery, my colleagues had the confidence to take on and own tasks in the knowledge that I trusted them to do a great job. Our collective purpose of seeing each other and the museum through the flood and the pandemic resulted in a collaborative form of leadership that meant I could hand over smoothly to my colleagues.
When I returned from maternity leave, progress towards reopening continued, allowing me to settle back in and plan for the next chapter of the museum’s life in today’s new world.
Morwenna Lewis is the curator at Pontypridd Museum