In search of 100 objects

September 30, 2018 0 Comments

September 2018 has turned out to be a month of personal endings. Three weeks ago, after five and a half years of sporadic legwork, we finished the last mile of the Wales Coast Path. This week saw the publication of two books I’ve been working on for what seems almost as long, Wales in 100 objects and Cymru mewn can gwrthrych.

The origins of the books are lost in time. I’m told the idea was mine, though I’ve no recollection of giving it birth. I suppose I must have mentioned it to a few people, because Elinor Wyn Reynolds, then an editor at Gwasg Gomer – this much I do remember – met me by chance at the National Eisteddfod in Llanelli in 2014 and asked me whether I was still interested. I was surprised, she was encouraging, and eventually a contract was signed with Gomer in 2015, for two books, one in English, one in Welsh (a grant from the Welsh Books Council helped with the costs of publication). I had no idea then, and nor did Gomer, that the books would be so long in the making. But I’m a naïve soul, and, to make matters worse, burdened with an excess of conscientiousness.

I’d long known Neil MacGregor’s radio series, and later book, based on items from the British Museum, called The world in 100 objects. The book is a triumph. But it’s also a monster, at over 700 pages. I knew we’d need to work on a more modest scale. Wales, after all, is slightly smaller than The World. Then I came across A history of Ireland in 100 objects, one of a large family of books based loosely on MacGregor’s format – there’s even a definitive volume entitled Dr Who in 100 objects. The Ireland book was written by Fintan O’Toole – whose Irish Times articles on Brexit, by the way, are worth bookfuls of commentaries by other journalists. It has a very simple format: object and explanatory text on facing pages. That seemed just right for Wales.  It made for a book of manageable size and text of a length that would not try the reader’s patience.

Sales of the books would succeed or fail according to the quality of the photographs. So it was a great relief when Gomer chose Roland Dafis to take them. Not only is he a superb photographer, he has long experience of capturing objects on camera, especially those in museum collections. And we had the services of Rebecca Ingleby, one of Wales’s best book designers.

So, armed with contract, format and colleagues, all I had to do was pick a few objects and write 550 words about each. That’s when the trouble started. The first question was, who would choose them? We discussed various methods – decisions by a committee, nominations by curators and other experts, election by popular poll – before realising that the only sensible way was for me to make my own choice, informed by suggestions from any quarter.

The choice was mine, then. What next? I knew that there needed to be some rules. ‘Objects’ would exclude buildings and entirely natural phenomena, but could include archival and print documents as well as three-dimensional objects, as long as everything was easily available to the public. We’d also need to avoid something that would have been so easy to do – picking all the objects from the two main national collections, Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales and the National Library of Wales. I was keen to include items from as many local museums, archives and libraries as possible, so that readers could move from looking at the reproductions in the book to experiencing the objects ‘in the flesh’ on their doorstep. We also needed a good spread of objects, chronologically, geographically and thematically.

There were two reasons why the rest of the project took so long. The first was that, rightly or wrongly, I felt I should visit as many memory institutions as I could, both electronically – some have good websites, some don’t – and physically. Wales is a small country but it contains hundreds of museums, archives, libraries and similar bodies. I can’t claim to have seen all of them, but I’ve visited a good many I wasn’t already familiar with. Two things struck me again and again during these trips. The first was how rich are the collections held in the institutions: it would be easy to fill a hundred books, each with a hundred excellent objects. And the second is how starved of staff and cash most of the bodies are. In last decade ‘austerity’ has reduced many institutions to bare subsistence, without the resources to make the most of their collections. On the positive side, the curators were unfailingly positive and helpful when I explained what I was up to.

This process of creative wandering left me with several hundred candidates for inclusion in the book. Whittling the long list down to a hundred was painful. Balance-finding helped (did I have enough objects from Pembrokeshire, or enough on transport or children?), and I discovered a preference for objects that could be used to tell not a single, but many different stories. Even so, I had to leave out some I really wanted to include. In the end I had a selection that combined objects that are well-known, personal favourites, and others that are truly obscure but carry a rich cargo of meaning.

The next stage, doing the research, was great fun. But it too was also very time-consuming. It meant hours of work in libraries and archives investigating the history and reverberations of each object. For the later periods it was a great help to be able to make easy online searches of the National Library’s Welsh newspapers online and Welsh journals online; both yielded surprising results. Most public knowledge about Wales, though, remains off-line, and I was lucky to be able to use Swansea University Library’s excellent print collections on Wales (still directly available and not packed off to a store to make room for more computers or ‘student hubs’).

Sometimes information seemed to flow together from different sources in an almost magical way. When I started I knew almost nothing about the reading cards from Esgairdawe School that seduced my eye in Carmarthenshire Museum. But before long I’d discovered the school’s original logbook, a published history of it, and a frank memoir by one of the earliest pupils. Then a National Museum contact told me who’d devised the cards – a woman who was one of the inter-war pioneers of Welsh-medium schooling. This all made for an absorbing story.

Then came the writing. This was more difficult. Condensing the core of the research into 550 words demanded a terse style and a ruthless ‘red pen’. What I aimed for was to include as much hard information as I could pack in, while at the same time trying to show how a single object and its meanings fitted into the wider stories of Welsh history. The style is as lively as I can make it, and I hope I’ve never underestimated the intelligence of the reader.

Working with two language versions proved hard. Often the word lengths of the Welsh and English versions varied widely, and I needed a lot of ingenuity to avoiding losing text. I sent early versions of the texts for review to curators, historians and other experts, to try to eliminate errors of fact and interpretation. Later drafts were checked by editors in Gwasg Gomer and the Books Council. Even so, I wouldn’t swear that the books are completely error-free.

So here we are. The two books are published, with the help of Rolant, Rebecca, my two editors, Ashley Owen and Sue Roberts, and many other people. They will have to make their own way in the world. But what have I learned from the experience of producing them? The most important lesson is one that many curators and some historians have known for years: the power of real historic ‘things’ to help people understand the past (and the present). And, just as important, the potential and pleasure of ‘doing your own history’, rather than ‘receiving’ it ready-made from a teacher or professional historian. In the online age this is much easier to do than in the past, and everyone has the chance to make new discoveries and follow trails wherever they lead.

My other conclusion, again a far from original one, is that the past of Wales matters. It helps us understand how we got here, and how to interpret what we can still see around us. It might even help us imagine the future. And yet Wales and its history are still far from familiar to large numbers of people, adults and children, who live in Wales (not to speak about those outside the country). Educationalists have become more and more concerned about children’s lack of knowledge, and slowly the Welsh school curriculum is changing. Even so, pupils tend to know far more about Henry VIII and the Nazis than about the history of their own country. Memory institutions like museums and archives have a powerful part to play in making that history seem worth knowing about. That’s why it makes no sense to allow them to stagnate and decay.

Books too, those supposedly obsolete objects of the Gutenberg age, can still play their part.

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