By Elizabeth Bruton
Swansea Museum is located in the maritime area near the centre of Swansea and adjacent to the docklands that for so long provided the lifeblood of the city. A couple of minutes walk away is the National Waterfront Museum, re-housed and re-opened in 2005, which tells the story of industry and innovation in Wales over the last 300 years. This leaves Swansea Museum with the challenging task of telling the history of the city itself and of its inhabitants. In addition to the building itself, the museum also includes three other locations. Two of these, a ‘floating display’ of boats and a tramshed on Dylan Thomas Square, are both located in nearby Swansea Marina. The three boats which form the ‘floating display’ – the lightship ‘Helwick’, a tug boat called ‘Canning’ and ‘Olga’, and a Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter built in 1909 – are open to the public during the summer months. The Tramshed displays memorabilia from the former street trams of Swansea and the Mumbles tram. The route of the Mumbles tram now forms a shared-use walkway and cycle route that follows the curve of bay from Swansea city centre to the old Victorian pier at the nearby seaside town of Mumbles. The fourth museum location, the Collections Centre, is located a few miles outside of the city centre and next to Liberty Stadium, home to Swansea City Football Club. The centre is open to visitors every Wednesday, 10am to 4pm, and provides opportunities to see the reserve and maritime & industrial collections.
The museum and its main collection are housed in a wonderful neo-classical Victorian building. In 1835 a philosophical and literary society was established in Swansea and in 1841 the Royal Institution South Wales (as it was now known) built the first purpose-built museum building in Wales, built in the neo-classical style. This impressive building is now home to the Swansea Museum, making it Wales’s oldest museum. The building and the city hosted the British Association for the Advancement of Science annual meetings in 1848 and 1880. Well-known ‘men of science’ of the day such as Michael Faraday (1791-1867), Swansea-born William Robert Grove (1811-1896), and Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) were all strong supporters of the Royal Institution South Wales and all three men lectured here on several occasions. The lecture chamber now forms part of the museum with much of the original features still intact.
Within the walls of this magnificent building is the main museum collection, a treasure trove of objects telling the fascinating history of the city. The downstairs section of the museum has the China Gallery, the original debating chamber, temporary exhibitions, and the museum shop. The upper floor of the museum houses displays on archaeology, Egyptology, and a cabinet of curiosities. The fruits of the commercial and industrial activities of the city are on display in the China gallery, which includes pottery as far back as early Cambrian wares (1768-90). The focus of this gallery is pottery made in Swansea, including some beautiful porcelain pottery. During my visit in January 2012 there were two temporary exhibitions, a small travelling exhibition on Amundsen and a local one on Copperopolis telling the story of Swansea, Copper and the world – both definitely of interest to historians of science and industry. The latter exhibition was housed in the former debating chamber and library.
Up the winding stairs – another original feature of the building – are displays on archaeology, Egyptology, and a cabinet of curiosities. The archaeology room covers the history of Swansea from the Pleistocene (Ice Age) to medieval period, and is modest in scope. The Egyptology display is a small room with the Mummy of Hor which has been on display almost continuously since 1888. The display is very much focussed on Egyptian history and folklore and the details of how and why this object came to Swansea are only be revealed in a small photograph in the Cabinet of Curiosities room. Further information on the object can be found on the BBC History of World objects website.
The Cabinet of Curiosities room is where, at least for this visitor, the museum comes to life. While lacking the content and interpretation of most modern museum displays, this room uses the breadth of the collection to explore the modern history of the city in its wider context. The room spans a wealth of displays and objects including (but not limited to): the model of a traditional Welsh kitchen; a brief history of the city including the World War Two bombing; a natural history of the Swansea area including the surrounding Gower peninsula (well worth a visit, particularly by bicycle); a history of the Royal Institution of South Wales; a Victorian lady’s room; a display on phrenology (sure to be of interest to historians of medicine); the chronology, historic urban and architectural photographs and drawings of the town; and other miscellanea. Towards the end of the Cabinet of Curiosity room is a small photograph of Field Marshal Lord Francis Wallace Grenfell (1841-1925) revealing how this Swansea-born gentleman choose a career in the Army over the family copper business and was posted to Egypt in the 1880s. Along with many educated Victorians of this age, Grenfell was greatly interested in archaeology and Egyptian history. He obtained the Mummy of Hor with the help of British Museum archaeologist Wallis Budge before gifting it to the Royal Institution of South Wales in 1888 along with the mummy’s coffin and other small funeral items. This visitor was left to wonder why this is not more prominently displayed alongside the Mummy itself?
This museum, its collection, and the wonderful historic building within which they are housed are well worth a visit and a day trip to Swansea could be easily filled with a trip to the Swansea Museum, the nearby Waterfront Museum, and a wander around the nearby dockland area. The museum is free to enter and has plenty to amuse, entertain, and educate those of all ages and interests, and with much to impart to interested historians of science.