HC Deb 13 April 1961 vol 638 cc643-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

10.47 p.m.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (Anglesey)

The Welsh Folk Museum is one of the most remarkable institutions of its kind in Europe, and I should like to say a few words about its history. In 1932, a sub-department of folk culture was set up in the National Museum in Cardiff, and in 1936 this was raised into a full department of folk life. During subsequent years, between 1936 and 1939, attempts were made to discover a suitable site for a full-scale folk museum and two sites were considered, but the war intervened.

In 1946, Lord Plymouth offered St. Fagans Castle and 18 acres of gardens and grounds as a centre for a folk museum. This offer was accepted and an additional 80 acres of land was acquired, also from Lord Plymouth, at a nominal figure.

The Welsh Folk Museum, under its official title "The National Museum of Wales (Welsh Folk Museum)", was opened to the public on 1st July, 1948. It started with a small skeleton staff and with St. Fagans Castle and its grounds and a working wood-turner as the only exhibits. In 1961, thirteen years afterwards, it has a staff of nearly seventy persons, including a departmental keeper of the collections, two assistant keepers in the field of material culture and rural studies and an assistant keeper in charge of a department of Oral Traditions and Dialectology, with an archivist and two research assistants about to be appointed.

It therefore not merely covers the whole field of Welsh material culture but is concerned with the desperately urgent task of surveying and recording the whole field of spoken Welsh and of doing so immediately in those border areas, including east and central Monmouthshire, where the native Welsh dialects have almost disappeared. This is work of incomparable value and, by its nature, work of great urgency. Equipment for the work was provided by a grant of £15, 000 from the Gulbenkian Foundation and contributions following a radio appeal, but much more equipment is needed.

From 1949 to the present date buildings significant of the Welsh tradition have been removed to and re-erected at the Folk Museum. They include an 18th century woollen factory from Brecknockshire, equipped with the original machinery and now in active production, a 16th century timber-framed barn from Flintshire, a Unitarian chapel from Carmarthenshire, a 16th century farmhouse from Montgomeryshire, a 17th century farmhouse from Glamorgan, a medieval farmhouse, renovated in the 18th century, from Radnorshire, a late 15th century farmhouse from the Vale of Clwyd, Denbighshire, and an 18th century cottage from Snowdonia. Almost every country, except unfortunately Anglesey, is represented by a building in the collection and I wish that one of the windmills in Anglesey could be removed to the Museum.

St. Fagans Castle has been restored, as far as possible, to its original condition and furnished from the Folk Museum collection to produce rooms of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Its gardens have been reorganised. A herb garden of the Elizabethan type has been developed. Gardens have also been developed in association with the various re-erected farmhouses I have mentioned. The wood-turner has trained three apprentices who have returned to the countryside and he now has an assistant. There are two basket-makers and the Brecknockshire woollen mill is staffed by two textile workers.

Due to considerations of exhibition space in the Museum in Cardiff, the national Welsh Folk Collection—which is one of the finest collections in Europe—was removed from Cardiff to St. Fagans. This raised crucial problems of storage and it was decided to build a small section of the proposed Folk Museum block to house the collection in store. This was erected at a cost of £15,000. I stress to the Minister that this money was provided completely by some Welsh county councils. It is greatly to the credit of Glamorgan that it gave £10,000.

But today its ground floor is completely packed to ceiling level with specimens. Its first floor is not only used for storage up to roof height but has also a small cross-section of the collection on exhibition. But the staff still has to collect, in view of the rapid disappearance of the traditional materials of country life in Wales.

The Fifth Report of the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries for 1959 states on page 58: There is a most urgent need for an addition to the Museum Block, for there is no further room for either storage or exhibition; each new acquisition of any size creates a problem and a only small fraction of the very large national folk-life collection is being exhibited. …Specimens stored in this crowded and unsatisfactory way are difficult to examine and there is an anxiety that they may suffer in consequence. The position has worsened since that Report was written and now there is no further storage space available.

The Minister will be aware that when the Museum was opened in 1948 a fund was set up, to which individual local authorities and various organisations have contributed. At the end of 1959–60, private and public donations to the fund amounted to over £106,000. Of this sum, £91,000 has been spent on development at St. Fagans, and much of the remaining £15,000 has been earmarked for the buildings now being or about to be re-erected. There are no funds for erecting the new Museum block.

I emphasise that every building, without exception, which has been removed to the Folk Museum has been a gift from the owner, and the cost of removal and re-erection has been made possible through substantial donations to the fund from the Welsh county councils and other public bodies, such as the Pilgrims Trust. We know that the Treasury provides an annual maintenance grant, but it has given nothing towards capital development, excepting only a grant of £10,000 towards the cost of the car park, and it is that point that I want the Minister to consider.

Several facts need emphasising. The first is that this Museum is the only national folk museum of its kind in the Commonwealth. As a pioneer in the Commonwealth, it has had to depend on the generosity of the Welsh people for its development. It has had no impetus from London. Even its admission fees and other takings have to be used annually to supplement the Government grant-in-aid, and permission to set these monies aside for development purposes has been constantly refused by the Treasury. All incentive to increase takings is therefore killed.

It seems strange that while about £4 million is to be spent on the development of the South Bank, and while an ordinary new school costs from £200,000 to £300,000, help of that dimension has been withheld in the last thirteen years from the only national folk museum in the Commonwealth, when a sum of about £400,000 would cover its development needs.

In 1954 the Report of the Standing Commission listed certain priorities, which were mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman when he replied to a debate on the 2nd July, 1956, as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. These priorities were: the west wing of the National Museum at Cardiff, the central block of the National Library at Aberystwyth, the museum block for the Folk Museum, and the completion of the book stack for the National Library.

Those priorities are re-listed in the 1959 Report, with a note indicating that the second priority, the central block, had already been completed. This brought the third priority—the Folk Museum—into second place. In a subsequent paragraph the Commission pressed the claim for building the west wing in Cardiff and strongly advocated financial help for the completion of the book stack, but, strangely enough, it did not underline the need for the museum block, although later in the Report the urgent need of the Welsh Folk Museum is described.

Again in 1959, the Museum Council asked the Treasury for a capital grant of £257,000 to build the exhibition and storage block, the administrative block, and the restaurant at the Welsh Folk Museum. As a result of this application, the right hon. Gentleman and the Financial Secretary subsequently visited St. Fagans to view the place for themselves. But the request was rejected in 1961 after a lapse of eighteen months. I feel that the Treasury has shown a complete lack of urgency and appreciation of the problem.

The case for the exhibition and storage block is obvious from what I have said. The Welsh Folk Museum is probably the only museum of its kind in the world which cannot exhibit its collection, to illustrate the typological and chronological aspects of Welsh material culture. The need for the administrative block is equally urgent. All available rooms in the castle are occupied, and it will be difficult to house any new appointments.

Furthermore, one of the outstanding duties of the Folk Museum is to provide a folk museum schools service. This cannot be done until the necessary space is available. This service is demanded from all sides—from the Ministry inspectorate, from the teachers and from the Welsh public. The Museum staff is anxious to provide it and to arrange summer schools and so on, but is powerless under conditions now existing at St. Fagans. There is need for a large restaurant. On public holidays there are 2,000 or 3,000 visitors, and I am told that the confusion on those days is indescribable.

Throughout the year, from every part of Wales parties numbering up to 150 persons and more expect meals after a long bus journey, and it is impossible to cope with them and the Museum's good name suffers in consequence. When we consider that these problems could be met for the cost of one large modern school, it is difficult to understand the Treasury's reluctance to aid the development of the pioneer folk museum in Britain.

This Folk Museum is recognised abroad as one of the premier institutions of its kind. The National University of Ireland recognised the curator's part in the development of the Museum by last year awarding him the honorary degree of D. Litt.Celt. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the distinguished curator, Dr. Peate, for his devoted and outstanding service.

The Treasury's reluctance to make a grant may be due in part to the fact that it considers the museum a mere appendage of the National Museum at Cardiff. That may be because of the arrangement whereby the accounts of the Museum are kept in Cardiff and the annual grant-in-aid for the Museum is allocated as part of the National Museum grant, but I feel that that situation calls for reform.

The Folk Museum is fourteen years old. It seems grossly unfair, after the strenuous and successful efforts to secure funds in Wales, that it should still be in the position of having no substantial aid from the Government for capital development. I know that the Minister is interested in the Folk Museum and I hope that he will now prevail upon the Treasury to look upon the application with greater understanding.

I have received a personal note from Professor J. H. Delargy, the eminent Professor of Folk Lore in the University of Ireland, and I conclude by quoting what he said: The establishment of…the Welsh Folk Museum…is one of the most outstanding and epoch-making cultural achievements in the British Isles in this century. It is, indeed, one of the 'wonders of Britain', a credit to Wales, and a testimony to the pride of Welsh people in their past and to their confidence in their future…. It gives me great pleasure to testify to the inspiration which St. Fagans has given to the work of the Irish Folklore Commission for many years. We have very intimate connections with the Welsh Folk Museum, and have the greatest respect and admiration for the truly remarkable progress which it has achieved. St. Fagans belongs first of all to Wales, but it is not only a Welsh folk museum but a European institution as well, justly respected by continental scholars of the highest standing.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. W. G. Morgan (Denbigh)

I am grateful for the indulgence of the House. The few observations which I have to make will take only a few moments.

I commend the Folk Museum to my right hon. Friend for the most generous financial treatment possible. It is unique in the British Commonwealth and has been copied by the Irish Republic and may be copied in Northern Ireland. The only capital development grant so far made has been one of £10,000 last year.

What has caused some concern to those interested in the Museum is that it was third on the list of priorities as far back as 1954, part of the National Library being first. Then the National Library work was completed by 1960, it was hoped that St. Fagans would become second on the list, but, as the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes) has said, it has been replaced by the book stack of the Library. From this side of the House, may I say that any increase in the capital development grant would be gratefully appreciated in the Principality?

11.4 p.m.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Mr. Henry Brooke)

I have the very highest opinion of the value of the National Folk Museum at St. Fagans and I can tell the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Denbigh (Mr. Morgan) that if anybody ever asks me when going to Wales what he ought to make a point of seeing, I unfailingly say that if he is going to South Wales he must not miss the Folk Museum.

It is some disappointment to me that only 90,000 or 100,000 people a year, including school parties, go there. Its value is not measured by those figures, and I should like to see far more people from Wales and from England and elsewhere visiting the National Folk Museum. I believe that it is unique in the Commonwealth.

Comparisons are odious, but this is a very precious jewel in the Welsh crown and the whole of the Principality is very fortunate in having someone like Dr. Peate as the Curator of the National Folk Museum. He seems, by his enthusiasm and knowledge, and his deep devotion to Wales, to be ideally suited to the work he carries out there. I am quite certain that every member of the Government would wish to see the Folk Museum developed to the full. I recognise that Dr. Peate and Dr. Dilwyn John, and the governing body of the Museum, must be regretful that everything cannot be done at the same time, but I should like to describe what has been done. My only criticism of the speech of the hon. Member for Anglesey is that in his enthusiasm for the Folk Museum he perhaps did not get everything into perspective.

It was visited not long ago by my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who has made a point of being here this evening, and I should like to put it on record that it was not because I was under any pressure that I first visited it. I became Minister for Welsh Affairs rather more than four years ago, and the Museum was one of the first places in Wales that I made a point of visiting. I have never regretted that; the chapel, the woollen mill, the farm and everything else are fascinating. I am delighted that Alderman Kinsey Morgan, a member of the Council for Wales, has given his family tannery, which is to be removed from Rhayader. It is the sort of acquisition that one wants the Museum to be enable to make.

On the question of perspective, I have made inquiries and I understand that the first approach made to the Government after the war was in 1946, when the Treasury was informed that there was no question of a capital grant, because the capital could be found from other sources, but that it would be helpful if the Treasury would make a maintenance grant of £4,000 a year. The maintenance grant for the coming year is not £4,000 but £60,000—a fifteen-fold increase, so it is not quite fair of the hon. Member to say that there has been no impetus from London. It is a most remarkable rate of growth, and my Treasury experience leads me to conclude that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1946 had foreseen this rate of growth he might have hesitated longer before agreeing to the original grant of £4,000 a year.

As the hon. Member said, the Museum started with virtually no staff, but it has now been built up to seventy people. As soon as the Treasury heard of the survey of oral traditions which is in hand—which is perhaps the most urgent thing the Museum is doing—it recognised its importance, and additional money for staff for that purpose was made available at once.

The hon. Member is now asking about capital grants. It is true that up to now no capital grants have been made to the Museum, except for the car park. If he is under any misapprehension that capital grants to the Folk Museum are ruled out by the Treasury and the Government, however, I can allay those doubts and fears straight away; the Museum is an integral part of the National Museum of Wales. I understood from the hon. Member that he was not quite sure whether that should be so; the fact remains that it is. It is under the same President and governing body, and so forth, and the Government would certainly approach any question of capital grant to the Folk Museum nowadays in just the same way as it would approach the question of a capital grant to the National Museum in Cardiff itself.

I would also point out that the hon. Member for Anglesey was not quite correct in indicating that applications for a capital grant of £250,000 for the proposed museum block at the National Folk Museum had been rejected. "Rejected" is not the right word. The position is this. There are altogether in England, Scotland and Wales, seventeen national museums, galleries and libraries—seventeen national institutions—and the Government cannot possibly find all the money to do all that is needed simultaneously. I am ready to be perfectly frank, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary would support me. A great deal needs to be done, and if the money were available, it would be a very pleasant and a very good thing if it could be done simultaneously. But it cannot. One has to establish a system of priorities.

Before determining these priorities, the Treasury seeks the advice of a small but authoritative body, called the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries on which Wales has until recently been ably represented by Lord Kenyon, a former President of the National Museum, who has an interest both in the National Museum and the Folk Museum. The Treasury is not bound by the recommendations of the Standing Commission, but it is the fact that after the Fifth Report of the Commission was received the Treasury asked the Commission whether it could set an order of priorities for the various capital projects which it had recommended in the Report.

So far as Wales was concerned the Commission did, in giving advice to the Treasury since the time of the 1959 Report, assign a first priority to the west wing of the National Museum in Cardiff and the completion of the first book stack in the National Library at Aberystwyth. The work at Cardiff is estimated to cost £350,000 and the work on the National Library is estimated to cost £200,000. The Treasury has promised a grant of 90 per cent. of that total of £550,000, so that in round figures the Treasury has this year promised £500,000 by way of capital grant to the national institutions of Wales. Nobody can say that that is not a fair share of the money that is available.

I am sorry, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary is sorry, that it has not been possible at the same time to find the money for what is needed at the Folk Museum. I am not questioning the need. I have seen the congestion there. I realise that these are not conditions in which objects of great historic interest should be stored. It is simply a question of not being able to do everything at once. There is no question of this application having been rejected. It is simply that on the advice of the Standing Commission, the Treasury felt that it must give priority to the other matters and it had not the money available to do everything.

May I now say a word about the car park? It was estimated that £17,000 to £18,000 was required for an urgently needed car park, and the work was put in hand. The Treasury offered £10,000, with the hope that the other £7,000 or £8,000 would be received from Welsh sources. It is disappointing that up to a short time ago the total amount which all the local authorities of Wales had offered towards the car park was a mere £250; £250 from the local authorities and £10,000 from the Exchequer.

In view of the importance of the Folk Museum to the people of Wales, it seems odd that up to then it had not been possible to raise more from the local authorities, and in view of what I am about to say I hope that some local authorities will be prepared to reconsider this matter; because I am happy to inform the House that the Treasury is willing to increase its grant towards the car park from £10,000 to £13,000. I greatly hope, as Minister for Welsh Affairs, that the people of Wales, through their local authorities, will be ready to find the remainder.

I assure the House that both my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who is here, and I have a very warm corner in our hearts for the National Folk Museum. I believe that it is a most desirable possession for Wales and that it is doing invaluable work. I should like to see it more widely appreciated in England as well as in Wales.

I hope that the explanation which I have given indicates that the Treasury, which consults the Minister for Welsh Affairs on all these matters, is by no means uninterested in the progress of the national institutions of Wales, and that if it has not been able on this occasion to meet the request of the National Folk Museum for a grant towards the £250,000 it is simply and solely because it felt, on the advice of the Standing Commission, that the money which it had available should be devoted to the west block of the National Museum and the completion of the first book stack at Aberystwyth.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Eleven o'clock.