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Probably the best history in Wales...
Museum of Welsh Life (Cardiff)
Member Name: collingwood21
Museum of Welsh Life (Cardiff)
Date: 28/06/02, updated on 28/06/02 (180 review reads)
Advantages: Free entry, good place to visit in summery weather, good shops, plenty to see
Disadvantages: Not all parts have wheelchair access, bad cafe, parts closed off when in use by schools (which is annoying), the past is romanticised
The Museum of Welsh Life is the oldest open-air museum in Britain (having opened in 1948), and claims to be the most visited heritage attraction in Wales. Occupying an enormous 104 acre site in a wooded valley, it has an assorted collection of buildings (most of which were dismantled from various places all over Wales and re-erected here), together with a couple of archaeological reconstructions, an Elizabethan manor house on its original site, a number of working craft displays and some indoor galleries. The purpose of all this is to show the visitor what life in Wales would have been like over the centuries.
- Getting there
One of the big pluses of this site is the fact it is so close to a capital city ? although in the middle of the valley you would find that hard to believe! If you are driving, then it will take about 15-20 minutes from city centre, just follow the brown signs for St Fagans out of Cardiff that will lead you to the museum car park. You may find it easier to use public transport, though, and this is surprisingly well catered for (I am used to not being able to visit places through the lack of a car). The 320 bus runs hourly (at 20 minutes past the hour) from stand B of Cardiff Central bus station, and drops you off right outside the entrance gates ? coming back, they run at 50 minutes past the hour just across the road to the entrance (it will cost £2.50 return from the bus station).
- What will it cost?
The nice people in the Assembly have decreed that everyone should have access to the National Museums of Wales,
so have made entrance completely free. While this is very nice of them and makes for a cheap day out, it unfortunately removes the main source of income for the museum, which is a bit of a problem. For this reason, I would recommend buying a visitor guide - the £1.95 will go towards important conservation work, and the information it contains is actually very useful as you wander around the site.
- What is there to do?
The main location on the site is the galleries, set in the large entrance building along with the museum shop and restaurant. While it is quite clear that renovation work has gone on to provide good, accessible visitor facilities, it is equally clear that noone has done anything to the displays for a very long time. A lot of them look very dull and outdated, and a lot of visitors seemed to be wandering through with a rather glazed expression on their faces! As there is so much to do on site, I would really say not to bother with anything other than the costume gallery - the display on national dress was the one worthwhile bit here.
Leaving the main building, you enter the open-air part of the museum, with a rather large collection of sites and building spread right across the site, and pleasant green walkways leading between them - this is where your guidebook map comes in useful! I would say that visiting the museum involves lots of walking, and while there are plenty of seats spread around, it is worthwhile selecting which parts you want to see and heading directly for them if you have trouble walking around or have young children with you (or if you are just plain lazy). I was recovering from an injured knee at this point, so there was no way I could possible get round everything!
One of the main attractions at St Fagans is the manor house - which for some reason they insist on calling a castle. Unfortunately, this was closed for conservation work when I visited, but it should be open again for the main
summer season when schools finish. From the guidebook though, this looks to be a National Trust-ish sort of experience.
There are two archaeological-type reconstructions on site which are part of a new development to extend the museum. They have a timber circle, and more interesting for me, an Iron Age village complete with roundhouses and timber palisade. I don't know how much validity these reconstructions have, but they are fun to have a look at nonetheless, and are a bit of a change from the farmhouses that seem to dominate the museum!
A number of buildings have craftsmen working in them, offering displays (and sometimes souvenirs) to the public - these are intended to reflect 500 years of traditional skills in Wales. Notable among these displays are the bakery, pottery, blacksmith, miller and tanner. In all other buildings though, there are museum assistants to answer your questions about the items on display and the structures themselves.
This site does attract many groups of schoolchildren during term time, so be warned that some areas may be blocked off to other visitors while schools are using them.
Other sites include:
- bee hives
- a post office
- early 20th century shops
- war memorial
- a church
- a schoolhouse
- a boat house
- a coach house
- a "house of the future" (currently being developed)
A visit takes between 2 hours and a full day, depending on how much you want to see/are prepared to walk. Available visitor facilities are:
- café (avoid - bad food and overpriced)
- restaurant (not cheap, but the food its much better)
- plenty of picnic tables if you take food with you
- two shops with a good range of stock
- chance to buy items made on site (e.g. pottery, bread)
- children's play area
- toilets with disabled access
Most of the site has wheelchair access, with the exception of the cast
le and castle gardens, which are up several flights of steps.
- My opinion
St Fagans is really little more than a romanticised nostalgia-fest for older visitors and a place to bring school groups I'm afraid. While it is a cheap and quite enjoyable day out if you are lucky enough to get good weather, I don't feel that I left with a better knowledge of how my ancestors lived, or what Wales was like over the past few centuries. I am somewhat doubtful over how accurate some of these displays actually are (you need to take them with a considerable side serving of salt), and while they have done a good thing by saving so much material from loss, I feel that they lose some of their historical meaning when taken out of context as they are presented here. And of course, there is the inevitable bias towards South Wales. Despite this though, I am glad that I contributed to the costs of the museum, in the hope that modern interpretation practices will eventually filter in...
Sorry, but for the time being, if it's an open-air museum you are after, Beamish is much better!
Entrance - free
Guidebooks - £1.95
Museum of Welsh Life
Phone - 029 20573500
Web - www.nmgw.ac.uk
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