The Cardiff Story Museum is housed within the Old Library, an iconic Grade II listed building in the heart of the city centre. Despite being born in Cardiff and having lived there for most of my life, I never actually visited the museum until recently. I suppose I thought I knew the history of the city fairly well and reasoned that a museum such as this was more for the benefit of tourists. I entered through a gift shop, normally a place I’d be tempted to stay and explore, but because I had an agenda for this visit, I walked purposefully through whilst admiring a selection of traditional and contemporary Welsh gifts. After being greeted at the doors to the main hall in both Welsh and English, I was directed to start my tour in the closest corner to the entrance. From here the story of Cardiff develops around the room through a selection of objects, information boards and various interactive displays.
The hall is large, but in institutional terms I would describe the Cardiff Story Museum as being fairly small. There is just one room on ground floor level and a much smaller space in the basement which houses temporary exhibitions. The current exhibition is on the subject of activism and protest in Cardiff. A tour of the main space leads the visitor on a journey from the earliest evidence of human activity in what is now the city centre, to the small market town Cardiff became in the 1300s, to the large port of the 1900s right up to the modern city it is today.
After an examination of objects such as a bronze age sword and Roman artefacts, each with an information page in a folder beside the case, I moved on to the next area about housing in the city. I enjoyed looking at a miniature version of a house in Cathedral Road, a short walk from the museum, and appreciating how the history of the house itself imprints on the lives of people in Cardiff. Located directly next to the house is a series of maps to illustrate how the city has expanded and changed. The visitor is able to layer them on top of each other to see the dramatic transformation.
Next, I arrived at a case containing a variety of once common objects that tell stories of the city’s working life such as a shop till, weighing scales and a classroom bell. Beside the objects is a touch screen where you can click on each and explore the stories of the people of Cardiff. I thought the inclusion of these stories was lovely and really brought the objects to life for me. There is also a small cinema tucked in the corner showing films about real people who lived and are living in Cardiff.
I loved Richard Short’s vivid painting of the opening of Queen Alexandra Dock in 1907. The painting is displayed next to a scale model of the Cardiff Docks as they would have looked in 1913. The model includes very detailed representations of significant Cardiff buildings, such as the Cardiff Coal Exchange where the first million-pound deal in the world was allegedly struck. The next area of the museum shows how Cardiff changed dramatically in the 20th century; from a small town to a renowned port city in less than 100 years. The city’s new buildings and transport links changed the landscape physically and laid the foundations for the city I know today. I was touched by the description of pack horses hauling iron along muddy tracks between Merthyr and Cardiff. This outdated mode of transportation was later replaced by the construction of the Glamorganshire canal and the opening of the Taff Vale Railway. I enjoyed piecing together the history of transport in the city and thinking about things that I take for granted today.
Finally, I came to a case of objects describing modern day Cardiff including references to the city’s status as a rugby city and party destination. I was sad to see a tent and a lanyard holding a guide to sleeping rough in Cardiff included in this case. The city, like many others, seems to be struggling with an increase in homelessness at the moment and stories from people who had experienced life on the streets really had an impact on me.
On a quiet weekday afternoon, I was the only visitor at times which allowed me to really study the exhibits. However, the selection of interactive games and challenges led me to believe it would be a different scene on weekends and school holidays. There were plenty of activities to keep small children occupied and also to provoke the interest of slightly older visitors. I particularly liked the replica animals in the centre room of the museum as the Animal Wall alongside Cardiff Castle is something I have loved since I was a small child.
Once I had seen everything in the main museum space, I found what turned out to be the highlight of my visit, the tiled corridor which was the original entrance to the library. It is absolutely beautiful and, as the museum information informed me, definitely demonstrates the ‘wealth, confidence and ambition’ of Victorian Cardiff. I spent just over an hour in the museum before heading upstairs to the café housed within the same building. The shop and café were not directly a part of the museum even though they are all located on the same premises. Whilst reflecting on my visit with a pot of tea, I decided that the Cardiff Story Museum is exactly that, a museum of stories. While it has some objects and photographs included in the displays, they weren’t always the focus. It was the description of what the object meant to the city or to the individual describing them that I most strongly related with. I left the museum with new knowledge and a renewed sense of pride in the place in which I grew up.