Dr Thurley crosses the border

January 28, 2018 10 Comments

Last year Ken Skates AM, then the Cabinet member responsibility for culture, commissioned a museum director from London, Dr Simon Thurley, to make recommendations on the running of the National Museum of Wales.  (Technically the Museum’s latest English title is Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, a clumsy formulation which shows what trouble you get into when you abandon your original, century-old name.)

The Welsh Government recently published the full version of Thurley’s report.  It’s excited a fair amount of derision and outrage, almost entirely for its inclusion of this single paragraph:

Wales played a crucial role in the British century [the 19th century] and its raw materials and know-how made a major contribution to the industrial revolution and the empire.  Of course the human story in Wales is interesting and compelling, but so is the big picture of how Wales, as part of Britain, changed the face of the globe.  This story will help make the Museum more compelling for tourists who come from outside Wales, for whom the human story of Welsh men and women is interesting but, perhaps, less compelling than an international narrative.

It’s a paragraph that wins no prizes for stylistic elegance, with its clumsy repetitions.  (Parts of the report read as if they’ve been hastily dictated rather than carefully written.)  But it’s the content of the three sentences that caught people’s attention.  Or maybe, rather, the unstated assumptions lying behind the words.

No one would deny that Wales was in the vanguard of the industrial revolution, or indeed that Welshmen –maybe less so than the Scots – were among the builders of the British Empire.  Gwyn Alf Williams described the process as vividly as any historian, for instance in his accounts of Welsh steel used to build the railways of Europe and the foundation of Hughesovka.  But the suggestion that the Museum’s exhibitions should be deliberately slanted to tell the imperial story – chronologically a tiny episode in the long history of Wales – struck many people as a step too far.  Whether deliberately or not, Thurley seems to place himself in the neo-Tory tradition, including the historians Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson and the would-be historian Boris Johnson, that insists on the essential beneficence of the Empire and the duty to celebrate its achievements.  He seems to be unaware that this idea might have little resonance in Wales, with its very different political and cultural experience.

Thurley compounds his error by subordinating the Museum’s mission of serving the people of Wales to the chasing of tourists.  Elsewhere he pays lip service to its excellent work with the Welsh public – he has a rather pitiful three-paragraph chapter on ‘engagement’ – but seems to care much more about visitors from outside Wales, to that extent that they should dictate the Museum’s policies.  He seems to be completely unaware of the decades-old complaints that the Museum has paid insufficient attention to giving Welsh people access to Welsh art. 

This isn’t to say that extra-Wales visitors don’t matter, they certainly do.  But then Thurley makes another unwarranted assumption: that they’re unlikely to find Wales a ‘compelling’ focus of interest.  Why ever not?  Why is Wales – in itself, not as an adjunct to England or Empire – an unworthy object of interest to someone from England, or Italy, or Canada?  In my experience, a high proportion of external visitors to memory institutions, especially from abroad, are highly curious about Welsh history, culture and the Welsh language (the role of the Welsh language in the Museum receives a single passing mention in the report).  It’s hard to escape the suspicion that Thurley may share the common upper class English prejudice about the ‘inferior status’ of Wales and Welsh history.  The suspicion is reinforced by the disastrous wording of the recommendation based on Thurley’s discussion of the Museum’s audiences (my italics):

Amgueddfa Cymru should consider being more ambitious in its interpretation and tell a story that is not narrowly Welsh but more about Wales’ part in the global industrial revolution.

The report’s remit, though, concerns how the Museum is run, rather than its larger aims.  Thurley has many recommendations about its administrative and financial future.  As far as I can judge, many are sensible or even unexceptionable, including those on industrial relations, micro-supervision by government and commercial activity.  But he grossly exaggerates the potential of the Museum to raise large quantities of independent sponsorship and patronage – he seems to be oblivious of the lack of a Welsh pool of cultured bankers and financiers.  A few of his ideas, including how to ‘package’ Caerleon for tourist consumption, are curious.

The fundamental reason for most of these failings, I suspect, is that Thurley is a prisoner of his upbringing and background.  He was educated at a public school before moving effortlessly through the cursus honorum shared by the small circle of directors of museums, art galleries and other major cultural institutions in London and south-east England.  His last post was as Chief Executive of English Heritage.  The mental baggage such an elite career imposes makes it very difficult to appreciate that there might be alternatives to the comfortable cultural assumptions of the English ruling classes – and to their political beliefs, like the overwhelming hegemony of the commercial imperative.

It’s tempting to wonder what a report by a consultant from a very different background might have said.  And sad to reflect that it was necessary for Ken Skates – admittedly a minister with a tin ear for the complexities of Welsh history and culture, as the Iron Ring episode showed – to turn automatically to London for assistance in reviewing the Museum.  Wouldn’t it have been more fitting and more interesting to have commissioned a museum or gallery professional from one of the Scandinavian or Baltic countries, who would likely have a deeper understanding of, and affinity for, a small country and its cultural institutions?

Comments (10)

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  1. Dafydd Pritchard says:


  2. Stephen Mason says:

    Ardderchog. Trueni bod y Llyfrau Gleision yn fyw ac yn iach o hyd. Beth mae Skates yn meddwl?

  3. rita tait says:

    couldn’t agree more with you. What a cheek!

  4. Heledd Gwyndaf says:

    Ardderchog. Diolch.

  5. Gwyn Roberts says:

    Ymateb cytbwys a chlir.

  6. Dafydd Williams says:

    A compelling analysis that deserves close attention from the Welsh government. The Thursley report should be put on hold pending a proper international study.

  7. Andrew Dixey says:

    Wedi was aro’r hoelen reit ar ei ben.

  8. Geraint Morgan says:

    Arbennig. Yw Ken Skates wedi darllen, tybed.

  9. Ann Ffrancon says:

    Sefyllfa drist a dadansoddiad ardderchog. Mae’n bwysig ein bod yn cadw llygad agos ar yr hyn sy’n digwydd yn y dyfodol ym maes twristiaeth yng Nghymru hefyd, nawr bod gennym Weinidog newydd gyda syniadau newydd!

  10. Rhidian Griffiths says:

    Doeth a threiddgar. Diolch.

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