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National Waterfront Museum, Swansea

National Waterfront Museum courtesy visitbritain The National Waterfront Museum at Swansea tells the story of industry and innovation in Wales from the past 300 years to the present.

Visitors enter the museum either from the Dockside (if they arrive by car) or from the main entrance facing Swansea town centre (if they arrive on foot). The Street is a large glass-enclosed area, which links the two buildings of the museum, the old redbrick building of the former museum, and the new glass and slate building.

Colour-coded wayfinders, as well as an information desk, make it easy for visitors to find their way around and to find something specific they are looking for. The Waterside Café situated in the Street provides refreshments throughout the day. Three education rooms and a library are on the first floor. A grand staircase or lifts lead to the first floor where the exhibits are located.

The National Waterfront Museum explores the history of industrial Wales through a series of key themes and factors that influenced, or were influenced by, the rapid changes in production, lifestyle, and employment in Wales. If mass production created prosperity, what luxuries could a labourer afford in 1850? If mining and quarrying communities were bound together by strong ties, how did they respond to outsiders? How did the influence of strong religious values affect industrial disputes?

Many of the stories in the Waterfront Museum look at the history of Swansea and of south Wales, but this is at heart a National Museum. Drawing principally on collections held by the National Museums & Galleries of Wales and City and County of Swansea, visitors can connect the subject of the exhibits to other museums around Wales.

The Exhibition Tour and Themes

At the top of the stairs, the first subject encountered by visitors is Energy, looking at the evolution of our use of energy and how it is generated and applied. Broadly it answers the questions “Where does energy come from?” and “What do we/our ancestors need energy for?” An image timeline shows the development in muscle/mechanical power, coal energy, oil/gas energy and new energy. Associated objects are in object cases, and also form four large kinetic sculptures.

There are also ‘satellite’ pods around the museum, which use simple interactives, film, and graphics to explore key energy sources and what they made possible in Wales.

The Landscape is illustrated through a dramatic virtual view of the Swansea area as seen from Kilvey Hill. Using advanced media, visitors can identify places where human interaction on the landscape has left visible marks. The Swansea area acts as a microcosm for issues in the whole of Wales from 1851 to the present day.

Graphics and images convey industrial archaeological, ecological, and environmental stories, as well as illustrating changes in the visible landscape, and illustrating changes in lifestyle and infrastructure requirements of the modern world.

From here visitors enter the large top floor gallery in the old building with its magnificent restored roof structure. A number of themes are included in this gallery, which can also be used for events. The large objects and cases in the centre of the room are on castors so that they can be moved to create a large open space for lectures, dinners, and conferences.

The first section here deals with People and is particularly focused on the 1851 census. This provided the information to suggest that Wales had become the world’s first industrial nation (that is, more people worked in industry than on the land). An original copy of the 1851 Census forms part of the display. Using the latest AV technology, visitors can follow in the footsteps of the Census Enumerator, Mr. Rosser, around Swansea on the day of the 1851 census and see the homes of people from different backgrounds and social classes. These are supported by a set of interesting stories based around objects in the museums collections about life in Swansea relating to early photography, scientific development, the copper strikes, and more.

From here, visitors turn to the Sea. Wales was able to develop as an industrial nation largely through its access to the sea and from there to the rest of the world. The history and role of the individual ports in Wales is very different, depending on their location, relationship to different industries, and destinations. Four ports (Cardiff/Barry, Milford Haven, Porthmadog, and Swansea) are examined in detail through a graphic timeline supported by AV, telling the basic chronological port development story and illustrating the types of ships, sailors, and their voyages. A changing display case carries temporary exhibitions for each port (Nelson & Milford Haven, Swansea Jack, Cardiff Tramp Steamers, Porthmadog’s international connections). There are also maritime paintings and boat models from the collections of CCS and NMGW.

In Communities, the visitor becomes ‘the researcher’, using the extensive images and oral history archive available from within NMGW, CCS, and other partner organisations. These include the role of family and friends, how communities felt about newcomers and outsiders, and the part played by chapel and church. The latest AV techniques enable the visitor to choose from a range of objects relating to one of the community themes, e.g. women and chapel-going, and hear about its history and significance while watching a specially selected set of photographs. Other films and themes can be accessed covering a wide range of Wales-wide communities and ideas, using information usually locked in the archives.

Organisations is a complementary display to Communities, using the experience of organisations such as health care providers, trade unions, sporting organisations, women’s groups, political organisations, and cultural groups from brass bands to Eisteddfodau. It uses objects, images, and archive material donated by the organisations themselves in a series of special changing exhibitions. In addition, a series of photographic stories are accessed through an interactive table while a permanent museum object-based display gives a third level of experience to the visitor.

Achievers celebrates the life of 15 individuals and their contribution to Wales. These stories will change year on year, using an interactive database of biography and information about some 80 men and women in the past and today who have contributed to Welsh life. The emphasis is to represent a broad range of people especially in the recent industrial history of Wales such as entrepreneurs, visionaries, winners, cultural, and sporting icons. Visitors will be invited to vote for their heroes and the results will be displayed in the exhibition.

Crossing into the new building via the 1st floor bridge link, visitors get another view of the Street, as well as of the impressive outside slate walls of the new building.

The top floor gallery of the new building overlooks the ground floor gallery with its iconic large exhibits. A bright red wall separates two thematic areas from the view below.

On entering Money visitors are invited into an interactive projection theatre in which they will find a series of shop interiors, starting with an early truck shop in Merthyr Tydfil, through a late 19th century co-op store in North Wales, to a pawn brokers in Tredegar, and finally a department store in Cardiff. These different shop interiors, along with the voices of the customers and employees, show how ‘shopping’ and life experiences have changed. Visitors can compare how much people earned, what purchasing power they had, how their financial situation was liable to change, what lifestyles and dietary choices were open to them, and how the ups and downs of the industrial changes in Wales affected their total life experiences.

A Day’s Work celebrates and dramatises the working experience, including the working environments of traditional heavy industry, the largely unpaid work done in the home and brings the story up to date with the modern workplace. It highlights the skills and tools of the workers and brings out the real-life evidence and experiences of working people through film interviews, diaries, and mass observation. This area will also raise issues about the ongoing revolution in work and technology and its implications for Wales. Here visitors can also experience the physical aspects of manual work through an interactive model.

A staircase (or lift) now takes visitors to the large ground floor gallery in the new building.

The first exhibition area looks at Networks and how they have shaped Wales as it is today, using an interactive map. This is accessed from a series of screens where the visitor can find out more about places or transport technologies and feats of engineering that have changed the face of Wales. An impressive timeline of objects and stories (supported by graphics) guides the visitor through the development of roads, canals, railways, and motorways, explaining the growth of industrial communities and the impact on the landscape from the late 18th century to the present. Spectacular large transport objects displayed here include a Cardiff-built monoplane and a full-size replica of the famous Pen-y-darren locomotive.

Dominating Transformations are three examples of the large machines, including a steel rolling mill, a brick press and a forge tilt hammer, that supported the metallurgical industries in Wales, surrounded by a large stack of the products from those industries. The transformation processes used for making refractory bricks, iron, steel, non-ferrous metals and tinplate is explained through films and graphics. Visitors are invited to explore the continual change and evolution of production, as the different industries have reacted to innovations and inventions, many of which were developed or perfected in Wales.

Coal is explored in three ways: as a mining resource, an industrial commodity, and a source of jobs around the world. The ‘Coal Smart Wall’, explores coal as a natural substance and a mining problem. Words, pictures, and specially prepared graphics show how it is formed and some of the problems it poses in mining. It is here that the visitor also discovers the variety of specialised jobs in the coal industry, which are closely related to the geology and hazards of the coalmine. Visitors will be directed to Big Pit: the National Mining Museum of Wales for a definitive experience.

The important Coal Trade is illustrated through images and explores the enormous quantities and value of coal that was traded on the Cardiff Coal Exchange. This is backed up by an interactive game in which visitors can see for themselves the consequences of shifts in demand and supply. The story of coal also explores the people from different countries and eras whose lives were connected to Welsh coal. This includes coaling station managers, commodity traders, and miners’ wives, each with a very different perspective on the influence that Welsh coal had and what it created in the world.

Land looks at the resources that made Wales an industrial nation under the headings of Metallic Minerals, Construction Minerals, Slate, (with reference to the Welsh Slate Museum), Precious Metals, Fuels and Nature (including Tourism). Visitors are encouraged to see issues about land and resources as a continuous thread crossing centuries from the copper ore mines of Anglesey to the holiday traffic in Snowdonia.

While Power of Land examined the natural resources of Wales, and Transformations looked at how they were processed, Metals looks at the end product. Three large revolving cases show metal objects, bringing the objects to the visitors as the cases revolve. Brass buttons, tin cans, copper sheathing, and enamel hollowware are all examples of goods made from Welsh metals. Graphic and text panels on the sides of the lifts give information on the economics of the industry and the experience of the Welsh communities that served the works.

The story of Immigration and Emigration in Wales is told with the focus on how the metal and coal industries and the wealth they generated attracted workers to Wales and made Welsh expertise an exportable commodity to other countries. A set of stories supported by images and objects tell of the Italians in Wales, the Welsh in America, and the story of Hughesovska in the Ukraine, founded by the Czars with Welsh smelting experts.

Across the Street lies the Frontiers gallery.

Frontiers will give visitors an opportunity to investigate the present and the future as well as the past. The Frontiers exhibit will showcase emerging technologies in science, manufacturing, and medicine to which Wales is making a strong contribution. A series of freestanding units hold an example of the groundbreaking item or relevant iconic object. Visitors can operate a browsing device to explore the story of the object, its implications, and its Welsh connection on screens located behind the display object. Another constantly refreshing area, Frontiers will provide visitors with a wholly or partially new offer each time.

Visitor Information

The museum is located in Swansea’s maritime quarter
Tel. 029 2057 3600
Open: year round, daily, 10am-5pm, except some days during Christmas and New Year’s
Web: National Waterfront Museum


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