Turning History into Heritage: Shaping Perceptions of Copper’s Past

Brass sheet manufactured by Vivian and Sons, Swansea for the Indian market
Brass sheet manufactured by Vivian and Sons, Swansea for the Indian market (credit: Vin Callcut, oldcopper.org)
The ESRC-funded Global and Local Worlds of Welsh Copper Project achieved its third milestone on 30 June when the gallery exhibition Byd Copr Cymru-A World of Welsh Copper was open for preview at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea. The exhibition will run until 15 October 2011 and a travelling version will tour Wales and other venues in the UK. I will blog more about my experience curating this exhibition in due course.

Shortly after the exhibition’s opening I gave a paper at the informal workshop, also organised by the project, on 14-15 July. The workshop title took its name from the project with the aim of bringing research into various aspects of the historic industry up to date. There was particular emphasis on examples of the global impact of the Welsh copper industry, particularly that centred in the Lower Swansea Valley. I hope to make abstracts of the papers available in the research section of the (still in development) Welsh Copper website soon.

Analysis of access to copper heritage on Copper Day
Analysis of access to copper heritage on Copper Day
My paper examined the current place that the copper industry occupies in our local and global heritage and then went on to make a preliminary analysis of two of the project’s major outcomes, Copper Day and the exhibition. The aim here was to set a benchmark for understanding how our knowledge-transfer initiatives worked in practice. This will then form the basis to a longer-term project to gauge professional and public perceptions of the historic copper industry with a view to conducting a survey over the next 12 months. I intend to publish this paper in an expanded form and am currently looking for appropriate journals or editorial collaborations.
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A history of Welsh copper in 29 objects: displaying the Latin American connection

Monkey puzzle tree, Chile
Monkey puzzle tree, Chile

On Thursday 16 December at 4pm I shall be giving a paper to this title for the Centre for the Comparative Study of the Americas (CECSAM) at Swansea University.

This will be the first time I have delved into a brand new region’s material culture since my foray into medieval southern Italy for my PhD. My learning curve has been steep and I hope that I do justice to the work of scholars of Latin America on which I will be heavily relying. However, this paper will not be about Wales’ relationship with Latin America during the boom years of the world copper industry in the middle two-thirds of the 19th century, but will rather suggest how this relationship can be interpreted through objects. Through the project I am currently working on, the Global and Local Worlds of Welsh Copper, I am tasked with doing just this. It isn’t just the Latin American connections that need to be made tangible through the objects and illustrations we will feature in the forthcoming exhibition at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea in July 2011, but those closer and farther from Wales such as Australia, South Africa, Anglesey and Cornwall. How can this story be told through the things that remain to us? Copper wasn’t the only thing that connected Latin America to Wales. The well-known Monkey-puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana, previously known as Chile Pine in Britain), native to Chile and Argentina, came to the British Isles in the 1850s and a handsome specimen was planted in the estates of Singleton Abbey, previously the home of copper magnates the Vivians, now the core of Swansea University. Did the copper connection bring this particular one to Swansea?

This paper will give me the opportunity to talk about my intellectual approach to choosing objects for exhibitions (and for history writing) and provide a discrete case-study to do this. To be a little out of my comfort zone with a new region’s history will sharpen, I hope, my questions and improve my answers. The title is in homage to copper’s elemental number, 29, and my expectation that 29 key objects can tell the story of the world of Welsh copper.

An enhanced version of my slideshow presentation will now form a part of the 2011 Swansea Latin American Association (Asociación Latinoamericana de Swansea Swansea Latin American Association) festival at the Dylan Thomas Centre where people will be able to learn about the Welsh-Latin American copper connections.

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New horizons in Welsh copper

Looking out from the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea
Looking out from the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea

In a little under two weeks I shall be starting a new job in the department of History & Classics at the University of Swansea. I will be Research Assistant on an ESRC-funded project entitled, History, heritage, and urban regeneration: the global and local worlds of Welsh copper. Project Leader, Prof Huw Bowen, won the £95,000 funding for this project which will be conducted in partnership with the University of Glamorgan, the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, and the City and County of Swansea.
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