Swansea Museum 2030
Royal Institution of South Wales
Swansea Museum 2030
Ideas for Public Discussion
In 2018 the Council of the Royal Institution of South Wales, which helps to support Swansea Museum, asked a small group of members to think about how the Museum might grow in the future. This is the group’s report. Its aim is to supply the raw material for a debate, among RISW members, officers and members of Swansea Council and the public, about how the Museum might increase its contribution to the core goals of Swansea Council and the educational, economic and cultural well-being of all of us.
The specific ideas we suggest are intended as illustrative only and are intended to stimulate discussion.
Quotations in the report are taken from comments from members of the public supportive of Swansea Museum. Noel Isherwood kindly provided the Illustrations.
People have always loved Swansea Museum. It was opened in 1841 as the first public museum in Wales by the Royal Institution of South Wales (RISW), whose members now operate as the Friends of the Museum. Today it’s owned and managed by Swansea Council. The Council has maintained and financed its building, staff and core services. Museum staff work with energy and ingenuity to look after the collections and entertain and educate the public.
‘The staff are supportive of local initiatives and vastly knowledgeable about local interests. A real jewel.’
The collections are large (about 100,000 items), rich and varied. They include an Egyptian mummy; prehistoric, Roman and medieval finds; paintings and drawings; vehicles and boats; and many ephemera. One of its finest exhibits is the Museum’s own classical building. It survived the Blitz of February 1941 and later urban redevelopment. Today its columned façade stands as a proud and welcoming gateway to the city.
‘These real artefacts tell a more understandable and local story to virtual reality and do so collectively in a stunning building.’
People come to Swansea Museum, from all parts of the city and the world, to expand their knowledge, as part of a holiday or business visit, accidentally or out of curiosity, to entertain children, or just for fun. No one has to pay, and everyone receives a warm welcome. The Museum is an open, democratic institution.
Sharing knowledge and research have always been important. The RISW’s ambition from the start was to develop Swansea economically through scientific and technological innovation. The original Museum had a laboratory, library and lecture theatre as well as exhibition galleries.
2 Why does Swansea Museum matter?
Swansea Museum is important to the city and region it serves, for two main reasons.
First, it helps us understand who we are as Swansea people, and how we got here. It gives us access to a shared memory store of our history.
‘When we moved to Swansea the Museum was one of the places we went to help us feel connected with the city.’
Second, the Museum presents Swansea to the world. It paints a picture of Swansea and its achievements to visitors, tourists and investors; over 100,000 visitors come every year. It’s a part of a network of heritage and arts services that together draw people to the area.
‘Heritage in Wales is important and contributes significantly to its economy. For every pound investment in heritage, the local economy gets a return of four to five pounds.’
The Museum achieves these two functions in different ways. It collects, documents and conserves objects from Swansea’s past. It lets us see them in exhibitions and publications. And it helps adults and children learn about their city and themselves, through group visits, classes and many other activities.
Swansea Museum isn’t all about the past. It’s a shared public space. All of us own it, and everyone can come and use it for free. It plays a part in improving learning, well-being and civic pride, and in bringing people together.
‘It’s the history of a great city. Without history we aren’t who we think we are.’
‘It’s especially important for kids to get a chance to see, feel, experience things beyond a computer screen when learning. The Museum provides that tangible link to historical worlds beyond the city.’
QUESTIONS FOR YOU
What does Swansea Museum mean to you, or your family or your organisation?
What do you particularly value about the Museum and what it does?
What would you miss if it didn’t exist?
|Bird’s eye view: the context|
|Bird’s eye view: the building|
3 Why does Swansea Museum need to grow and change?
No living museum stands still. Swansea has grown in size and diversity, but its Museum has not. It’s in danger of not reflecting the evolving city, or of being inclusive. It’s now in need of major change: both restoration and extension.
The Museum building is nearly 180 years old and needs careful attention to restore it to the beauty of its original state. It also deserves to gain a major modern extension. Why?
First, only a fraction of collections can be shown at one time (most items are kept in the Museum’s Collections Centre at Landore). There’s not enough space at present to show collections of national and international significance. More space is needed too for temporary exhibitions, including those arranged by community groups.
Second, there’s not enough space for members of the public to meet, discuss, learn and research.
Third, extra space is needed to house the Museum’s staff and volunteers, to include facilities like conservation, and to offer the facilities that visitors expect to find in a modern museum. like IT-based tools, a café and shop.
With these improvements the Museum will have the opportunity not just to do ‘more of the same’, but to extend its role as a place for Swansea people to gather, mix and debate – with a constant eye on the three crucial social and economic goals of Swansea Council: improving learning opportunities and standards, promoting social justice and reducing poverty, and attracting attention to our area.
In short, Swansea Museum already makes an impact, but it has huge potential to make a much bigger one. Among the results of a successful extension will be: more visitors, from Swansea and beyond; a busier and better-used space; a place for civic conversation, learning, relaxation and enjoyment; and a live connection with other cultural and social facilities in the city.
‘… it should be expanded 1,000%!’
‘We should be investing more in services like this [the Museum].’
QUESTIONS FOR YOU
Do you agree that Swansea Museum must change and grow if it’s to stay relevant?
What should change, and what should stay the same?
Do you think the Museum could develop into ‘more than a museum’, and, if so, how?
4 How could Swansea Museum change?
Here are some of the ideas we’ve collected about how Swansea Museum and its surroundings might be extended and improved. The aim is to help the Museum develop its collections and activities, increase visitor numbers, and enrich more lives.
Build a new wing. A new two or three-storey wing could be added to the back of the building: eco-friendly, striking and bold in design, but complementary to the original building. It would create extra, flexible space, make the Museum fully accessible, and include modern environmental and security controls. In its façade would be a new entrance, linking the building by ‘desire lines’ to the National Waterfront Museum, LC2 and the new Arena, now being built as a result of the Council’s City Deal initiative. The surrounding grounds could also be restyled as, for example, sensory gardens. Meanwhile, the original building would be restored, as far as possible, to its original state and style. The unused basement might become a children’s discovery area.
Open new exhibition galleries. Considering that it serves nearly a quarter of a million people and has a rich history to tell, the Museum needs more space to show its collections. Some collections are of national and international importance but are not widely appreciated as such. They could help increase the number of external visitors. Each deserves a large, permanent and well-displayed space. Examples are: early humans in Gower; Swansea and early photography; and Swansea as a world centre of non-ferrous metals industries. There should be room, too, for the occasional large exhibit, for visiting exhibitions, and for less interpreted, more miscellaneous displays to encourage chance discovery. And, importantly, for exhibitions arranged by, or in partnership with, local community groups.
‘If it hadn’t been for Swansea Museum’s great support, my recent exhibition would not have made it to Swansea!’
Draw on digital technologies. The great strength of a museum is that it brings you face to face with real objects from the past, rather than digital versions of them. But electronic technologies can help to make the most of that experience. They can give online access to the Museum’s database of objects and library books, digitise select parts of the collection, place objects in context through projection and visualisation, and link the Museum more directly to its audiences.
Develop public conversation. As a welcoming, neutral, public building, Swansea Museum could evolve into a sociable space for citizens to come together to discuss all kinds of public topics – not just about Swansea’s past, but our present and future too. In 1841 the Museum was given a small curved, raked auditorium for exactly this purpose. A new version of it in the extended building could act as a public forum, which community groups of all kinds could hire. People could mix and meet informally in other, more adaptable public spaces, and a new café and shop would also help attract people to use the building.
Feed curious minds. The Museum should extend its role as a bank of knowledge and a forum for critical thinking, by helping ‘curious minds’ – anyone seeking ideas about Swansea and its people. The aim would be to make knowledge more accessible and enjoyable to all, from the primary school student to the PhD researcher. The Museum could support teachers with all kinds of material for the new Welsh school curriculum, with its emphasis on learning through the history and present of Wales. Its Library room could become a discovery centre, with facilities for individuals and groups to work on the collections. A well-equipped teaching space would also be essential (the new Welsh school curriculum should give the Museum extra educational weight).
‘As a teacher I think it is vital that children have access to the past. Museums can make the past come alive.’
‘I grew up going to Swansea Museum because it was the closest to where I lived. It helped me develop from being a child into an adult with a good breadth of knowledge.’
Invite participation. Museums used to treat their users as passive recipients: they ‘provided’ a service to their ‘audience’. Increasingly they now involve people in planning facilities, describing collections, creating exhibitions, and learning together. They’re also keen to discover the needs of different social groups, and discuss with them how to meet those needs: they include people from different ethnic backgrounds, asylum seekers and those unfamiliar with museums. People should feel that they can shape as well as ‘consume’ Swansea Museum – for example, in planning a Museum extension. Well-organised and well-trained volunteers can also add value to what the Museum does, for example by cataloguing items, conserving items and helping the public.
Connect the Museum to other city institutions. Swansea Museum doesn’t stand in isolation. It has connections with other cultural institutions, like other museums and galleries, but also with businesses, schools, colleges and universities, and voluntary bodies. Closer working with them could contribute to social justice, reducing disadvantage and increasing learning. These connections might take many forms: shared collections and exhibitions, pop-up displays outside the Museum building, sponsorship and donation, spaces and events for community groups, and joint surveys of public needs. The extended Museum could even include a revived visitor information point for Swansea.
QUESTIONS FOR YOU
Do you agree with any or all of these suggestions?
Do you have other ideas you’d like to see discussed?
What would your priorities be in developing the Museum?
Front: indicative proposal
|Rear: indicative proposal|
5 How could a ‘renewed’ Swansea Museum come about?
No major work has been done on Swansea Museum’s building since the 1990s. Since then money for public causes has become tighter. Bringing about the revitalising change we’re suggesting might seem an impossible dream. But we’re convinced that the Museum can be transformed. The people of Brecon, with a fraction of Swansea’s population, have recently completed ‘Y Gaer’, an ambitious £14m modernisation and extension of the town’s museum and library. We too can succeed in Swansea, with a rather smaller project – if local people feel strongly enough about the cause, and if enough organisations and individuals can be persuaded to fund the costs.
We know that the Museum means a great deal to Swansea people. Many remember with affection going there as children, and now take their children and grandchildren. The challenge is to harness that interest and warmth – first, to kindle a wide conversation throughout the area about the Museum’s future (engagement), and then to gather active and wide support for whatever plans are agreed (advocacy).
‘I’m 68 years old and have been taking my children, grandchildren, and now my four great-grandchildren to the Museum all my life, and they have really enjoyed the joint.’
The first step in engagement is to convince the City and County of Swansea that redeveloping the Museum should be a priority. At the same time, people and organisations should be invited to join the debate, including those engaged in education and learning, culture and history, business and government. This could be done through documents and displays, design-led workshops, lectures and discussions, videos, social networking, as well as through more formal consultation. Schools, universities, societies and others could be drawn into the conversation.
The aim would be to agree on a plan for developing the Museum. The alliance emerging from the engagement process could then advocate the ideas more widely, and begin to discuss them with potential funders. The most important funder is likely to be the Heritage Lottery Fund. Others include charitable trusts with a record of helping museums and similar bodies. Help could also come from official bodies like the Welsh Government and the City and County of Swansea, corporate sponsors and individual philanthropists.
This will be a long process, taking years from the earliest debate to the final opening. But the prize will be large. Swansea Museum will be a worthy centre for its city’s rich history. Visitor numbers will multiply. Residents will feel at home in its new building, to explore their past but also to meet and talk with one another. Visitors will be able to gain a clearer appreciation of what Swansea and its people have given to the world. Everyone will benefit, socially, economically and educationally. Long into the future, people will have a greater chance of learning more, meeting more people, and enjoying being in a unique public institution.
QUESTIONS FOR YOU
Do you agree that restoring and extending the Museum is an achievable aim?
Would you or your organisation be willing to be part of the debate?
Do you have ideas about how the money might be raised?