Saturday 12 March 2016

40 Swansea Museum

40 Swansea Museum  (photos: Swansea Museum, L.W.Dillwyn, floodlit Museum) - 12 March 2016

What might be the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Wales’s second city - perhaps the Brangwyn Hall, or the Liberty  Stadium, or the Leisure Centre/LC2?  I would favour that historic building standing in Victoria Road with four Ionic columns supporting the portico – Swansea Museum, also known as the Royal Institution of South Wales.

In 1834 the founding of Neath’s Philosophical Society prompted some prominent Swansea citizens, including Lewis Weston Dillwyn of Sketty Hall, Sir John Morris of Clasemont and George Grant Francis of Burrows Lodge, to found Swansea’s Philosophical and Literary Society, for “the advancement of Science, Literature and the Arts”.  Initially two rooms were leased in Castle Square for a library and a museum, though larger premises were soon needed to carry out research, disseminate knowledge, and house many exhibits and works of art. 

John Henry Vivian MP obtained permission from the young Queen Victoria for the Society to be renamed the Royal Institution of South Wales in 1838, and the foundation stone of the oldest museum in Wales was laid on 24th August.  Designed by Liverpool architect Frederick Long, the museum, with a classical façade and Greek and Egyptian features, opened in 1841.  It enabled Swansea to host the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1848, and similarly the Cambrian Archaeological Association in 1861 made the first of five visits to Swansea and the museum.

Although the development of Swansea docks with the overhead railway caused some talk of relocating to St James’s Crescent in the Uplands, that plan came to nothing.

In the museum foyer hangs a photograph of Lizzie, a stuffed elephant which used to stand there - children would pat Lizzie for luck before music exams in the lecture theatre which housed the grand piano.  The elephant was from a Bostock and Wombwell travelling menagerie, but she did not survive war-time bomb damage.  Downstairs are the china gallery and the main gallery, with the fine staircase lined with paintings and portraits.  A lift enables disabled access to the first floor, which contains the Archaeology Gallery, the Cabinet of Curiosities with the Welsh kitchen, and the museum’s best known item – the Egyptian mummy.  In 1888 the future Lord Grenfell of Kilvey, of the St Thomas family of copper masters, presented the mummified body of the priest Hor to the museum.  There are busts of Dr Griffith John, for 50 years a missionary in China, and of Petty Officer Edgar Evans, the subject of a 2012 exhibition on the centenary of his death returning with Captain Scott from the South Pole.  Also among the collection, though rarely on display, are the 1303 marriage contract of the ill-fated Edward II, and the 1833 wedding dress of Emma Talbot of Penrice, bride of pioneer photographer John Dillwyn Llewelyn of Penllergare.  The museum garden contains fossil trees, while the history of the Mumbles Railway is displayed nearby in the tram shed in Dylan Thomas Square, and large items like the former Mumbles lifeboat ‘William Gammon’ can be viewed in the Collections Centre in Landore.

After some years of uncertainty the building and its collection were taken over in 1991 by the Local Authority, then the City of Swansea.  The Royal Institution of South Wales now functions as Friends of the Museum, and since 1993 publishes annually the ‘Swansea History Journal’ (originally called ‘Minerva’), which along with the Gower Society’s Journal provide a comprehensive resource for researchers.  Major exhibitions such as on the Great War, or about Dylan Thomas during the centenary of his birth, along with visits from school parties, lectures, workshops - all demonstrate that the Swansea bard’s remark about ‘the museum that should be in a museum’ is wide of the mark.
But even in the face of economic constraints on the Local Authority, to consider a not-for-profit body running the Museum would be poor stewardship of what is arguably the jewel in Swansea’s crown.    

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