The title of the exhibition which has been running in the Museum since January
reflects two things: the way in which museum displays have changed over the last century and the
care and thought which the staff put into choosing which objects to display. These were all the
gifts of early members of Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society, and the exhibition was designed to
put on display some of the articles which had been in store since the Museum moved from Quay Street
in the 1970s.
The first theme in this thought-provoking exhibition, very appropriately, was "Thought
and Antiquarianism". The objects show the growing interest in learning of all kinds after the
Tudor dynasty came to power in 1485. Camden's Britannia was the first systematic antiquarian study
of Britain. First published in 1586, the copy on display is dated 1695 and has notes by Edward Lhwyd,
a famous antiquarian. Another important book is Sir Roderick Impey Murchison's "The Silurian
System", open at a page to show an engraving of trilobites. Murchison pioneered the study of
the geology of the rocks which stretch from Llandeilo to Ludlow and underlie much of mid-Wales and
the Marches. He made astute use of fossils in identifying rock formations. This seminal work was
published in 1839.
The local curiosities were collected by members of the Carmarthen Literary and
Scientific Society, founded in 1840 and then transferred to the Antiquarian Society to become in
1908 the foundation of its museum. They reflect the interests and knowledge developed, firstly,
from the Welsh Academy, later the Presbyterian College, 'a powerhouse of radical nonconformity'
whose influence radiated out from Carmarthen to the rest of Wales. Later the Great Exhibition's
influence spread out from London.
Attitudes to women and their expectations have altered greatly over the last century.
The Society's collections reflect a time when there was a great divide between the work of men and
women. Boys were expected to work to support their family, a big responsibility even though less
well-off women also worked in service, factories or shops. It was regarded their duty to fight when
there was a war, as the dreadful recruiting poster, with a mother telling her son "Go! It's
your duty lad. Join today." shows so well. Girls were trained to run a home. Samplers not only
provided sewing practice; they also proved her suitability for marriage - she could sew neatly (a
very important skill when many clothes were made in the home and were mended over and over again).
Few will now regret that boys and girls are given equal opportunities.
The old equivalent of the wedding gift list was the Bidding, very necessary when
young couples needed help to start up home. The system was highly organised, an account was kept
of gifts, usually money, and they would be repaid on demand - in effect an interest-free loan at
a time when it was most needed. The small portrait of Mary Williams and her daughter, painted by
David Patrick, about two years after her marriage in 1848, is a poignant reminder of the high death
rate of young women - she was dead by 1856. There is also a portrait of her husband, David, wearing
his smart wedding waistcoat, displayed in the case below.
A very interesting theme in the exhibition is called Mementoes of War. 'People
have fought for honour, for country, for justice and because they were made to. What would you fight
for? Would you?' The variety of exhibits make you wonder what was the motive of the men who "liberated"
them. How many of the thousands who served abroad or in the Navy during the Age of Empire did so
because other options were so limited or they wanted to disappear, at least for a while? The memorials,
medals and mementoes on display recall not only the triumph of General Picton but the deaths of
so many in the mud of the Crimea or Flanders.
Class wars were a different type of conflict. The Rebecca Rioters of the 1840s
questioned the way society worked but when the Antiquarians began collecting in 1905 class was still
very important. The way society was made up could not change and knowing your place in it was a
fundamental fact of life, even if that meant a permanent fear of the workhouse. Attitudes changed
during the century and by the 1920's it was possible for artist Morland Lewis, from a respectable
local family, to paint "The Tramp". This section ends with the question 'Is Wales a classless
society today?' Perhaps a better question might have been 'Are we becoming less of a classless society?'
The collections, started a century ago, are rich in objects illustrating social
attitudes of the time. Most touching are those relating to children, especially those with handicaps.
The mug with the sign language alphabet is a reminder of the fate that awaited most deaf children,
often confined to asylums in the 19th century, the first local school for deaf children opened in
1893.. Death and the fear of a funeral that was not sufficiently respectable was very prevalent.
The mourning cloak could be hired to cover shabby working clothes when nothing better could be afforded
and friendly societies helped many to weather the storm of illness and death. Low-level crime and
alcohol related problems were, and still are, part of Carmarthen town life. Two hundred years ago
naming and shaming of miscreants was carried out in very visible ways and executions were public
events until 1829.
Attitudes to animals have changed enormously since 1905. Today most people consider
they have a right to kill animals for food and knowledge while some believe that the right exists
to kill for sport. The sporting trophies are a reminder of how widespread hunting of many more species
than the fox was a century ago while the man trap, displayed next to the salmon gaff, show how jealously
hunting rights were guarded. The common displays of song birds and cabinets of eggs and insects
showed both a disregard for animal welfare and a lack of knowledge of conservation issues. It is,
however, interesting to reflect that the RSPCA was founded before either public executions or the
use of man traps were banned.
The last section of the exhibition looks at the attitudes of a previous generation
to other cultures and asks questions about our own. When Britain was at the height of its power
men went overseas for a variety of reasons. If they survived they brought home souvenirs, many examples
of which are displayed. Some were gifts or were bought but some were loot. Were they admired or
just regarded as curious and inferior?
The "Abyssinian Bible", brought home by Lieut-Gen. Sir James Hills-Johnes
after the destruction and plundering of Emperor Tewdros's palace in 1868, is such. In 1936 it was
on special view in the museum's window, described as having been "found by Lieut-Gen. Sir James
Hills-Johnes VC, GCB., in the King's Tent, Magdale Fort, the day after the storming of the fort
by British troops and the death of Theodore II, King of Abyssinia." The account goes on to
describe how the king, having become a despot, imprisoned the British consul, leading to an invasion
led by Napier. The account does not recount how, after the bloody battle, the emperor, as he was
more properly known, his palace destroyed and plundered, committed suicide with a pistol given him
by Queen Victoria. Cheering troops stripped his clothes and tore out his hair for souvenirs, then
looted the palace. It took 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry away the loot and Gladstone had to
apologise in Parliament in 1872 when the episode came to light. 5,000 of these artefacts are now
in UK museums. Should they, including our 5 by 3 inch book written in red and black ink on 60 sheets
of vellum, be returned? Many people think so.
The exhibition has been very rewarding, an opportunity to see some of the beautiful
books in the collection, such as a volume of David Roberts's beautiful hand-coloured lithographs
of the Holy Land and "Sir William Hamilton's collection of engravings from antique vases".
But perhaps it was more important to see many objects not usually on display, in their context,
with a chance to think about their meaning. Truly, "Objects of Meaning".