Swansea, Wales: The Swansea Museum

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Well, I only have one post on Wales, and jet lag is to blame.  I went up to Swansea with my boyfriend a few weeks ago for a wedding, and though we were leaving in the early afternoon the next day, I planned on taking in a few different museums in the morning.  Unfortunately, we’d only flown back from America a couple of days before, which meant we ended up sleeping in so long we almost missed the noon checkout time; thus, I only ended up having time to visit the Swansea Museum, which was practically just across the street from our hotel, and had the added benefit of free admission.

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This was my first time in Wales, let alone in Swansea, but it seems like no matter which museum I chose, I would have gotten a chance to learn more about everyone’s favourite Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.  The Swansea Museum was no exception, as the first gallery featured Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” complete with Christmas decorations in a mock-up of Dylan’s favourite pub, and charming paintings illustrating his Christmas story (which were for sale, but were a couple hundred quid a pop.  If they’d had prints available for a more modest price, I definitely would have bought one. I especially like the one with the hippos).

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There were an array of Santas as well, including more delightful illustrations (seriously, why didn’t they have prints?  A sign mentioned that Christmas cards were available in the shop featuring some of the Santa pictures, but I visited at the start of January when they were presumably sold out…the man in the shop had no idea what I was talking about when I asked).  It wasn’t all Christmas cheer in this room, however, as a sign near the “pub” informed me that the area used to be home to a variety of brothels, and many of the prostitutes congregated outside the handsome museum building.

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The downstairs had a small gallery featuring Welsh pottery, which was evidently quite a thriving industry at one point.    Their output doesn’t seem to have been as adventurous and eclectic as of some of the Staffordshire figurines (still in love with my Daniel Lambert), but I did very much like the cats and the surprised-looking cow milk pitcher.

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The other gallery down there was apparently their main exhibition space, and was devoted entirely to WWI, just like so many other museum exhibits in this centenary year (well, last year now, but the war was still on in 1915 at any rate!).  This was my favourite section of the museum, and contained some select artefacts (note the neato snake, below) and a mock-up of a trench, but the best, and most poignant parts, were the posters on the walls that told the stories of various Welsh soldiers and other people involved in the war effort.

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For example, there was the story of a woman who narrowly escaped death in the munitions factory where she worked, as she was off having her tweezers sharpened when there was an explosion in her section.  Another woman wasn’t quite so lucky, and was killed in an explosion that occurred after her shift ended, because she had gone back in with a friend to grab her purse.  I guess it shows to go how survival is often a matter of sheer luck.  Lots of stories of soldiers and their families as well, including some letters sent home by the troops; I thought it was a really lovely display that helped put a face on the war.

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It was not without some dark humour as well – the sign on the patient above directs visitors to not touch him as he “is feeling very ill and may be contagious.”  After finishing up here, we headed to the top floor, which was divided into an archeology section and a “cabinet of curiosities.”  It doesn’t take a genius to work out which one I visited first.

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Yep, mention a Wunderkammer and I’m there!  In addition to a display of natural curiosities, there was an array of appliances of olde, including a tea-making device that was reminiscent of the Teamaster from “A Christmassy Ted.”  I also liked the elaborate memento mori hiding away in one case.  But, the winning display for me was something else altogether.  You may remember my fascination with polar exploration, and my long-ago trip to the Oates Collection.  So I was thrilled that another of Scott’s ill-fated explorers turned up here (of all places); Edgar Evans, a burly Welshman that was apparently the first of the men to die, because he was the largest man and needed the most food to keep him going.

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There was something I had missed initially between the two galleries…a door that beckoned me to open it to view the mummy.  No pictures were allowed in the mummy nook, but there was indeed a couple of sarcophagi hiding behind the mysterious door in the dark little room within, which was another delightfully unexpected treat in this small museum.

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The final gallery was the aforementioned archeology one, which I admittedly didn’t have high hopes for because Roman ruins bore the piss out of me, but they did their best by including a couple Celtic dummies.  Actually, the whole upstairs was delightfully old-school, with those yellowing, really lengthy captions on everything (the kind that modern curators never use, more’s the pity, because standard wisdom nowadays seems to be that people have short attention spans, so you shouldn’t give them too much to read) and a general air of mustiness that I enjoyed.  I also loved the grandfather clocks hanging out on the stairwell on the way down – one featured a ship that presumably travels across the sea as the day progresses, and the other one was dog (maybe hunting?) themed.

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There was apparently a kind of annex to the museum that I wasn’t aware of at the time, but I happened to stumble across it a little while later when strolling by the harbour – it was a glass building containing a couple trams, but it didn’t look open when I walked past.  Might be worth checking out though.  Overall, though it was in many ways a typical local museum, I nonetheless found something really charming about it; it had a very homely air that is sometimes absent from other museums of this type.  I can’t compare it to any of the other museums in Swansea (damn jet lag), but I thought it was quite nice for what it was, especially the temporary exhibits on Christmas and the War.  3.5/5.