Telling it like it really was

Fflur Arwel questions the gatekeepers of Welsh history

The importance of the ability to understand, tell thereby shape your own history cannot be underestimated. To know and to own your history is not only empowering but a fundamental cog in the development of a collective sense of culture and identity.

Our awareness of a distinctive Welsh history owes a great deal to pioneering historians such as Gwyn Alf Williams, John Davies and Deidre Beddoe – to name only a few – who have dedicated their lives to passing on the untold story of Wales, of which many of the Welsh people remain aware.

The Cwricwlwm Cymreig, history and the story of Wales, was a 2013 report written for the Welsh Government by Elin Jones, one of Wales’ most eminent historians. It argued that generally in Welsh schools a British or Anglicised version of history has been taught. The failure to acknowledge a Welsh perspective in the curriculum has resulted in Welsh children being deprived of knowledge about their own country.

At Race Council Cymru’s 2018 conference, Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed and others from the Ethnic Youth Support Team went further in their paper Racism and Race in Schools: Experiences and Practices in Wales. They argued that a lack of representation of the Welsh experience in the Welsh curriculum resulted in it being “a colonised curriculum”.

But who decides what is, or isn’t, Welsh history? Who are the gatekeepers of Welsh history and culture? And how does the way we view our history change or influence our understanding of contemporary Wales and and its future as a nation?

One way to answer this question is to look at the way we tell our history today. And to don that you need go no further than the St Fagan’s museum on the edge of Cardiff.

Remains of a Neanderthal young boy living in Wales 230,000 years ago

Last year, the National Museum of History at St Fagan’s – Wales’s largest and arguably most popular heritage attraction – saw a £30 million redevelopment of its museum. Cited as “the most ambitious redevelopment project in its history”, over a hundred community organisations and local groups came together to take part and help shape the project.

The museum now contains three new galleries combining Wales’ social history and archaeology. The Cymru exhibition, curated by Sioned Hughes, keeper of history and archeology of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, provides glimpses of life from several perspectives over several millennia. So it brings together the remains of a Neanderthal young boy living in Wales 230,000 years ago, the stories of Welsh soldiers wounded in the First World War, and what young people of today think of the 1997 devolution vote.

Llys Llywelyn, the court of the medieval Welsh prince, has been reconstructed, allowing people an insight into the life of Welsh royalty during the 12th and 13th centuries. The Bryn Eryr Iron Age farmstead, reconstructed by volunteers, is based on an archaeological site from the time of the Roman conquest. On the other hand, the Bronze Age Barrow is an experiment with local pupils in recreating a Bronze Age burial monument to provide insight into the lives and identities of people from that period.

A 13th Century crowned head thought to be that of Llywelyn Fawr (1173-1240), excavated from the remains of Deganwy Castle, near Llandudno, in 1966. It inspired Harri Webb’s poem The Stone Face:

A stone face sleeps beneath the earth
With open eyes. All history is its dream

The exhibitions are all interactive, giving visitors an opportunity to get involved in living history. The three hundred artefacts and sixteen changing stories allow everyone the opportunity to contribute and create history together

The essence of of the museum at St Fagans is in the name, Amgueddfa Werin Cymru – the people’s museum of Wales. It is powerful precisely because it explores history through everyday lives, using different perspectives to tell and re-tell our history.

It is powerful, too, because for the first time it feels like Wales’ history is becoming representative of the people who lived it. In the process it gives Welsh history a greater status and places different voices at the heart of its storytelling.

Nevertheless, we still have some way to go.

Because there is still history that is marginalized, hidden, and some that has never been told. That includes the history of women, class, religion, and the black and LGBT communities. It also includes the history of empire and our hybridity as both colonised and coloniser.

The exhibitions are all interactive, giving visitors an opportunity to get involved in living history.’

All these strands of histories are, for the most part, still invisible. They remain in the margins when they should be in the mainstream, intertwining with our collective understanding of our national history.

We need to know more about the laws of Hywel Dda, indigenous Welsh laws and legislation that were, for their time, in many ways extraordinarily progressive. We need to know more about the first wave of Somali and and Yemeni merchant seamen who, after the opening of the Suez Canal in the 1860s, transported Welsh coal around the world before settling in Barry, Cardiff, and Newport. We need to understand better how they contributed to the historical, social and economic development of Wales for over 100 years.

And from a 20th Century perspective, it would be good to have a greater acknowledgement of Tredegar as the real birthplace of the national health service.

Progress is being made in rewriting the history of Wales and there is an increasing amount of research to rediscover and retell lost marginalised stories. Our history is scattered - like a patchwork of pluralities – and we need to weave it all together to create a new tapestry. That’s what the St Fagan exhibition has begun.

In October last year the Senedd’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee announced it would be looking at how Welsh history and culture is taught in our schools. When they begin their work I hope they consider the extraordinary variety of stories that make up the history of Wales. I hope they consider the importance of intertwining all the many strands as part of the greater story of Wales that we must teach our children.

Wales is a ‘community of communities’ and our long, diverse and rich history is something to truly celebrate. But we need also to appreciate the inadequacies in our national mythology that actively excludes women and other marginalised groups.

If Wales is to become a prosperous and progressive independent country –one that will stand as an example of equality to the rest of the world – understanding our history should be reflected in our vision for the future.

Fflur Arwel is Plaid Cymru’s Senior Communications Officer in the Senedd.