visual culture wales

Articles by Huw David Jones

Meic Stevens at the National Museum of Wales

I found this wonderful photograph recently in the archives at the National Library of Wales.  It shows the Welsh folk singer Meic Stevens, who had just released the Outlander LP on Warner Bros Records, playing a gig at the Welsh Arts Council’s Art and Society: Work exhibition at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, in October 1970.

Meic Stevens performs at the Work exhibition at the National Museum of Wales, October 1970.

Museums can be seen as fairly solemn places. Critics – particularly on the Left – have argued that their imposing stone facades and quite, studious interior creates an air of earnestness and snobbish cultural superiority which puts off many visitors.

In 1965, Labour’s Arts Minister, Jennie Lee, produced a government white paper, criticising museums for having ‘failed to move with the times, retaining a cheerless unwelcoming air that alienates all but the specialist and the dedicated’.  Lee believed a ‘new social as well as artistic climate’ was needed to make them more inclusive.

Art and Society was part of the Welsh Arts Council’s response to Labour’s concerns. Not only did the series seek to challenge traditional perceptions of ‘art’ – films, comics and postcards were displayed alongside paintings and sculpture – it also tried to create a more lively and entertaining atmosphere to make the museum space more inviting.

British Ropes Excelsior Works Band performing at the opening of the Work exhibition, National Museum of Wales, October 1970

The first exhibition in the series, War, featured a soundtrack with music by The Beatles, Paul Robeson, Marlene Dietrich and the Glenn Miller Orchestra.  Work, the second in the series, opened with a concert by a colliery brass band and included daily performances by Meic Stevens and another folk singer, Peter Bellamy.  The organisers also hired a Playboy bunny-girl as a marketing stunt for the opening ceremony.

To an extent these tactics succeeded: Work became the Welsh Arts Council’s most successful exhibition ever, attracting over 43,000 visitors in Cardiff alone. Yet they also drew criticisms about the dumbing-down of cultural standards.  Roger Webster, the former Director of the Welsh Arts Council, said Art and Society left him with a ‘nagging fear that we may be fooling ourselves – rather like the contemporary pretence that the Beatles have the same value as Bach’.

Meic Stevens at the National Museum of Wales (detail - the traditional audience)

One of the fascinating things about the Meic Stevens photograph is the audience in the background.  In the centre stands a middle-aged couple with their young boy and another man with his daughter obediently stood beside him.  Both men are formally dressed in suits and ties.  They embody the traditional audience for whom museums were a place of education, civility and enlightenment.

Meic Stevens at the National Museum of Wales (detail - a new audience)

To the left stands a tall young man poses as a typical student radical, with his Che-Guevara-style beard, German railwayman’s hat and (even though its October) bare feet.  The girl next to him wears trousers and a casual sweater.  These are the new audience who have been drawn into the museum by the more relaxed social climate created by the performance of live folk music.

Of course, it is difficult to extract much from a single photograph, but there is a notable gap between these two groups. Art and Society may well have attracted a new audience through its lively, more relaxed atmosphere, but it also saw the emergence of a tension between traditionalists, for whom the museum was a space of quite contemplation and study, and a new type of visitor, who thought it should be a space of entertainment.

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