Bogart

A little bit of home before I go…

In Museums on April 30, 2011 at 6:02 pm

I know I was going to use Washington as my excuse to start this blog, but I made an impromptu visit to a new museum today, and I feel compelled to express an opinion. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… The Cardiff Story!

The Cardiff Story opened on April 1st 2011,  situated on The Hayes. For those who don’t know (fools!) that is bang-smack in the middle of Cardiff’s busy shopping centre. There is a lot of footfall around the Old Library Building (below – where the Cardiff Story is housed) and as it is completely free to go in, you’d think they are starting out on a winner.

However, again, you need to know a bit more about Cardiff. Less than two minutes’ leisurely stroll from the Cardiff Story is Cardiff Castle, around which the entire city is built. It’s a fine example of everything from a Roman war machine to an insane romp of Victorian Gothic restoration; an imposing reminder of a very long local history. Just past the castle you will reach the National Museum. Some of the history is a bit tired, but there is a lot of money being pumped into these marble halls, and the tempory exhibitions (such as the recent From Steep Hills and the current Toulouse-Lautrec show) set the bar very high indeed. Not to mention, it houses the second largest collection of Impressionist Art in the world (in case you’re wondering, only the Louvre has more).

So, with Monet’s Waterlilies and a 2,000 year-old garrison filled with peacocks just around the corner, the Cardiff Story had better be bringing something special to the party…

I must confess at this point that I don’t like this kind of museum. I don’t like big marble halls and panel-upon-panel of information about something there is a photo of somewhere. The British Museum (which I’m sure I will review scathingly in the near future) is what hell looks like in my imagination. I have walked past the Cardiff Story about half-a-dozen times since it opened this month, and each time I have made a flimsy excuse to keep on walking. The coloured boxes of the logo, the trite name, the council-generated buzz – EVERYTHING put me off.

However, I was quite pleasantly surprised. I do love the city I’m from with all my heart, and it was interesting to potter around the permanent exhibition and learn a bit more about it. It’s all a bit generic, mind – the industrial past of the city, Cardiff in the war, etc – the kind of social history themes that have been done ad nauseum around the world are not going to set anyone’s world alight. However, it is very nicely done, and you are not lead to believe that the history of the place ended in 1945. The sporting history of the city plays a big part, and things like the Welsh National Opera and Spiller’s Records (oldest record shop in the world) play a bit part, which makes a nice change. It’s heavy on touchscreens and AV, but they are all up-to-date and up-and-running (for now…).

In the basement is the CityLab – a place for you to sit, chill, and learn a bit more about where you are. Also, there’s a lot for kids to do down here – crayons and beanbags abound. It’s quite child-friendly, and I’d even go so far as to say it is aimed more at children than at adults. There’s lots to touch, poke, smell, watch and do, so you can’t fault it if you’re looking for budget school holiday entertainment.

Upstairs is a space dedicated to temporary exhibitions, and right now you’ll find biglittlecity, a celebration of Cardiff’s creative community. It’s much more an art gallery than a museum, but it focusses on local characters, and includes everything from incredible stained-glass panels and minutely detailed paintings  to a truly fantastic hat. Fantastic hats go a long way with me – I was mighty impressed.

Dan Green's fantabulous stained glass composition of Cardiff Bay

Special mention must also go to the Tile Corridor –  I’m purposely not putting a picture in because it doesn’t do it any justice, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise. As modern and hi-tech as the rest of the place is, this hidey-hole with a Victorian interior absolutely stole my heart, and must be seen to be believed.

For me, the Cardiff Story is a solid visitor experience, and littlebigcity especially is great – hopefully future temporary exhibitions will be similarly impressive. The fact that you’re encouraged to engage and contribute at every turn is commendable (there are guestbooks and whiteboards EVERYWHERE), and I learned a little bit about my home city. Kids will get a lot out of the visit – it’s a great way to break up a boring day of shopping.  

However, it’s a bit of a flat-pack job. It could be used as a model for most small city museums and replicated anywhere, which is crushingly disappointing. Cardiff is so, so much more exciting than the Cardiff Story tells you it is.

The Museums Association did a pretty big piece on Ironbridge Alumnus Dr Kate Howe (Museum Manager. FYI, A ridiculous bias towards the hallowed halls of the Ironbridge Institute will be a standard feature of this blog). Howe is a Cardiff native, and it shows – this is a museum that will mean a lot more to a Cardiffian than to a  visitor. As much as it pains a Cardiff girl to say it, we aren’t dealing with London here. As fabulous as the artwork upstairs is, if you’re not from the area then Bin Drummer is going to mean nothing to you. By all means reach out to the local audience, but not at the expense of everyone else.

You don’t get any sense that Cardiff is the capital of the land of song, or that it is home to some of the longest history in Britain. In fact, you don’t get much sense of anything – despite being right in the centre of its capital,  the spirit of Wales is conspicuously absent. If you want to get a real feel for Cardiff, you need to keep walking right past the Cardiff Story and just experience its surroundings. Pop in if you’re passing, but don’t make a special trip.

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