Origins: In Search of Early Wales, National Museum Cardiff

This revamped archaeology gallery uses a human-interest approach to enhance its relevance to visitors, says Julia Edge
Julia Edge
In 1823, geologist William Buckland uncovered a human skeleton covered in red ochre during excavations at Paviland in southern Wales.

He thought the burial was of a woman who had worked as a prostitute during Roman times and nicknamed her the "red lady". Today we know that "she" was a he living some 29,000 years ago, making his burial the earliest known in Britain.

The Paviland skeleton is one of the highlights of Origins: In Search of Early Wales, a new gallery at the National Museum Cardiff. In Amgueddfa Cymru's (National Museum Wales) centenary year in 2007, Origins was part of a range of events and exhibitions with the theme "identities".

It covers life in Wales from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages, and its introductory text asks, "Who were our ancestors?", "How different were they from us?" and "What has changed?".

As there are only scant physical remains from prehistoric times, Origins looks at what is happening in other areas of the world. For example, a section on cave art talks about sites in France and Spain, as none have yet been discovered in Wales.

Origins also makes clever use of reconstructions. There are some Neolithic and Bronze Age flint arrowheads, "hafted" on to plastic rods, showing what they would have looked like in use. In a display covering the early Bronze Age, there is a good discussion about some of the materials that have not survived, including clothing and basketry.

Origins feels like it is about people, rather than objects, even though some of the objects themselves cannot tell us much about life. This is achieved partly by mentioning individuals at every opportunity. In a display of Palaeolithic hand axes, the text refers to their owner, who left them in a cave between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago, perhaps hoping to return and use them again.

The curators also get around the lack of individual voices from the past by using those from the present and from our more recent past. There are quotations throughout the gallery showing the reactions of people to their past. This almost continuous reference to the present helps to place history in context and demonstrates its continuing relevance.

Throughout the gallery, we are invited to make comparisons, across time and place. In the section on "borders" in Anglo-Saxon Wales, an image of Offa's Dyke is shown alongside images of the Great Wall of China, the border between East and West Germany, and the Danevirke in Denmark. Again, Origins not only tells the story of Wales, but also places it in context.

A personal statement from the curator of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology at the museum emphasises the amount that we have yet to find out about this period. Here is a clear admission that interpretation is sometimes difficult and often changes over time. All of this helps to break down the "glass case" effect and presents Origins as a conversation.

This is echoed throughout the exhibition via questions in the text asking visitors what they think. The Bronze Age gold section, for example, discusses how the jewellery might have been worn and says: "We are still not sure; what do you think?".

Origins is presented chronologically through colour-coded sections. The text is clear and easy to read, with large display panels providing an overview. It is all displayed in Welsh and English and is also colour-coded, making it easy to pick out the relevant passage.

Some of the more detailed information is presented in laminated booklets. These include a case showing remains of animals of the cold glacials, where there are no labels in the cases, but some booklets providing more information.

Throughout the gallery, there are excellent information panels for children. These show an outline map of Wales with a red dot illustrating where an object was found, basic information about it and often a question to prompt further thoughts. So a panel beside a case containing some Mesolithic stone beads asks what they would be used for.

My one criticism of these panels is that they were paper, and looked temporary. But I visited on the first day of opening, so they could have been mounted properly since.

In the final sections of the gallery, videos are used to show images of important sites. One entitled the Roman Landscape features images of sites as they look today, coupled with an outline map of Wales to show their location. There is also one interesting audio allowing visitors to choose poems read in different languages, including Old Welsh, Old Irish, Middle Welsh, Anglo-Norman and Flemish.

Origins is an excellent gallery, filled with personal voices from the past and the present. It makes a good attempt at answering the questions posed at the start of the exhibition.

As poet RS Thomas says in a quotation featured in the gallery: "There is work here still, quarrying for an ancient language to bring it to the light from under the years' dust covering it." Origins has made a good start at clearing away the dust.

Julia Edge is a freelance arts journalist and was formerly the collections manager at the Horniman Museum in London
Project data

Cost: £470,000
Main funders: Amgueddfa Cymru, Friends of National Museum Wales
Audiovisual: Blackbox
Lead curator: Mark Redknap
Display cases: Armour

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