Andrea DeRome, Collections Access Officer at Ceredigion Museum travelled to Argentina in February 2019 with an ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant. This is the report from Andrea’s visit.
The original purpose of my visit was to carry out research for a 2019 exhibition at Ceredigion Museum, examining Navigation, Discovery and Exploration. A fundamental part will be migration journeys, the discovery of new lives after those journeys, and relate that to the present day. This will then provide information for the permanent displays to fill a gap in our interpretation of the county.
My journey to Argentina followed the same path as the Ceredigion settlers in 1865. I explored the trail created through the country, the towns built along that way, including their original landing point and their first homes and considered the interpretation and objects in relevant museums. I also tried to determine the personal objects they chose to take with them, the mementoes they could not live without. I concentrated my visit in contemplating the fate of five iconic Welsh objects; the Welsh bible and chapel, the Welsh hat, the Welsh blanket or ‘Carthen,’ the Welsh dresser and the Welsh cottage. I wished to study if the communities symbolised and expressed their identities with these objects? Did these quintessential Welsh items live on unchanged in Welsh Patagonia or transformed, inspired by the culture of their new Latin home?
Wherever possible, at each museum I visited, I met the curator. In those institutes which did not have a curator, I met a knowledgeable visitor guide.
After meeting the Esquel community, the first museum I visited was the Regional Historical Museum in Gaiman, which commemorates the history of the Welsh community in the area.
Here I met the curator, Fabio Trevor Gonzalez, and the sister of the museum founder, Luned Roberts Gonzalez. They educated me comprehensively on the influence of the original Welsh pioneers throughout the area and advised on all other relevant sites in Gaiman and beyond, extending my itinerary in the region. Following there advise, I visited the Railway Tunnel Museum in Gaiman and the Bethel and Vieja Chapels.
My visit to the First House in Gaiman, built by Dafydd Roberts, led me to other properties in the town he had built. Moving on from Gaiman I visited the Welsh Peoples Museum, Trelew and the Regional Museum Rawson. Here I met Cintia Navas the curator. The town of Puerto Madryn, where the first Welsh settlers landed, is home to the Disembarkation Museum. My visit here educated and led me to the Historic Caves, the settler’s initial dwellings.
Putting aside the obvious challenges surrounding language and the extensive travelling through a large country, as they were equally part of the joy, the greatest challenge for me was developing relationships quickly to achieve positive results.
Obviously, the initial contact through email in a second language made the preliminary conversations very formal. There was a hesitation from parties to completely engage with the possibilities; after all, they did not know me and my capabilities. Also, despite researching the museums online, I did not appreciate, until my visit, that on the whole they were small with one paid member of staff. That staff member alone fulfilled the museum timetable. They had little time to understand the potential of my visit and more importantly had no colleagues to discuss and contemplate the possible benefits or the work I could undertake.
I was able to spend the most time with the museum at Gaiman where I received information from both Fabio Gonzalez and Luned Roberts. The different relationship they held with the museum brought different points of view. This allowed me an understanding of the museum’s present situation, giving me a real opportunity to be of benefit. I was able to generate a more positive impact on their present thinking by relating the challenges Ceredigion Museum had and was experiencing. I explained the projects and developments the museum had focused on to become more resilient. Finally, sharing the policies and procedures we have in place that strengthen what we do, why we do it and who we do it for.
I gained new perspectives on many facets, ranging from large scale ideas of the world I live in, aspects of the museum world I work in and then more specifically my research and the variety of meanings this topic holds for different people. Travelling through a country on the scale of Argentina in/on a continent I have not visited before was an energising experience.
For Ceredigion Museum, on completing the journey and my research, I can now conclude the migration part of the exhibition interpretation, appreciating the impact of our county’s history on the world. I appreciate the scale of the journey the original pioneers took and the infrastructure which exists due to their and subsequent generations efforts and campaigns.
For the museums I visited, some find themselves in a time of instability. Argentina is keen for tourism to grow and there are many questions being posed to museums. What should they be like in the future? Who are their future visitors? I discussed at length the challenges we were going through, the projects and developments achieved and the policies and procedures we have in place. I have forwarded a copy of all these documents to those who were interested.
It is a difficult balance to construct an itinerary that covers all you wish to see and experience but that also allows flexibility in your time should you encounter an opportunity to gain further insight from an unknown source. Additionally, everyone is different; they work and think at varying tempos. How long do you require? Particularly when planning a once in a lifetime opportunity in a country so vast.
I began my visits with an initial meeting spending a day discussing the museum and the scope of my visit. I took along publications about the museum I worked at, enabling the curators to better understand where I was coming from. I revisited after a couple of days allowing them the time to consider what may be beneficial to them. I felt it was not until meeting someone, being fortunate enough to have the time to understand their position and build a level of trust to facilitate discussing their present situation that any mutually beneficial work could begin. Many organisations I visited were very small employing only one member of staff. When they were facing problems they faced them alone and had no one to discuss these with on a day to day basis.
Initially, my next steps take two distinct paths. One is to collate all the information, publications and images I have collected during my visit and to consolidate this in an available 1865 migration resource for Ceredigion museum staff. The second is to maintain contact with the heritage staff and organisation’s I met during my visit; to provide all the information, policies, procedures and any advice they required and were interested in.
Following these initial actions, the 1865 migration resource will primarily form the migration part of my 2019 Navigation, Discovery and Exploration exhibition interpretation. Secondly, it will establish a complete ‘story’ for the People’s Collection Wales website and finally develop information for the permanent displays to fill a large gap in our collecting and interpretation of the county.
I will also remain in contact with the colleagues I met on my trip to provide mutual support and advice.
In terms of the resources involved, I will continue to call on the network of individuals I have met in undertaking this visit, both those I met during and before my visit.
I will further research through relevant institutions within Wales and Britain to understand the material they hold on the subject of migration particularly the National Library of Wales, the Emigrants to a New World gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum and, possibly, the Irish Emigration museum to ascertain how they have broached this part of their history.
I will formulate a timetable/action plan in order to achieve exhibition deadlines, costings for required materials and exhibition design and content.
In the short term, it has given us clarity to understand the continuing impact of our county’s history on the world. In the long term, I hope we will continue to foster and grow international networks.
I was motivated by the experience; developed skills in planning and organization, problem-solving ability as well as effectiveness in speaking. I obtained new knowledge, broadened my viewpoint and clarified my thinking.
“Support from the ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant Scheme 2018-19 has given us, a rural Welsh museum, an international perspective that will benefit both staff and visitors. Aberystwyth lies at the end of the rail network, a seemingly dead end, but we are now better able to interpret our locality as the launch site to far-flung destinations for intrepid emigrants undeterred by the unknown. It has upskilled a key member of staff, who will continue to stay in contact with our new colleagues in Argentina, sharing knowledge and skills for mutual benefit. We’re extremely grateful for your support.”
Carrie Canham, Curator of Ceredigion Museum.