“Tiger Bay is gone,” wrote the author of the piece, Tim Justin Robinson. “The name remains, the legends will persist, the stories will be told. But Butetown – the new redeveloped parts and the as yet undeveloped part – have swallowed the Tiger, or perhaps it would be better to say the Tiger has crept away to hide in people’s hearts, a memory of an unruly but loveable rogue. And I can’t help feeling that if, in order to give people better housing we may have to destroy the links generations of people have built up; if in destroying a jungle we can offer a desert in its place; then we should be prepared to accept the consequences. It may be that when people are not consulted, when they feel abused, yet stay a community, then they may revive that Tiger and turn it on us – we who tell them we know best, but will not join them in their redeveloped paradise.”
Those words were written 45 years ago. The “as yet undeveloped part” is now, of course, a waterfront of globalised leisure facilities, chi chi apartment living and the seat of the Welsh Parliament. But one thing hasn’t changed. The Tiger has not so much been swallowed as spat out. No area of Wales hides its vibrant history as one of the original melting-pots of diversity in the whole of the UK as well as Cardiff Bay.
The name Mermaid Quay alone tells us all we need to know about the concentration on celebrating the corporate present rather than cherishing the multicultural past. And the people of the Butetown community are still “not consulted” in this ever-changing landscape of development.
I witnessed this sense of disenfranchisement last year while recording a radio programme. Attempting to root our documentary on Welsh food history in the place where, in the 1950s, people from 57 nationalities combined, I searched the waterfront in vain for some kind of symbol, plaque or exhibition that reflected this heritage.
In the Pierhead Building I found a historical exhibition. But it concentrated on the Marquis of Bute and the engineering feat of constructing Cardiff docks. No mention of the human story of those drawn to the port from all over the world and the way they redefined what it is to be Welsh by bringing diversity to a small nation.
So we walked inland to Butetown Community Centre. On the wall there was a memorial board for seamen killed in the First and Second World Wars – surnames of men reflecting myriad nations who gave up their lives for their adopted country.
And here, serendipitously, we met Mymuna Mohamood, a vibrant young woman who is doing huge amounts to give her community a greater voice.
She described her family roots: “I was born and bred in Butetown. I’m of Somali origin. My father was a seaman and came to Cardiff in the late 1960s. I’ve lived here all my life. I’m very proud of my culture and heritage – I’m very much Somali as much as I am Welsh.”
Mymuna also reflected on the development divide.
“Mermaid Quay?” she smiled wryly. “You walk down and you have what we call the Berlin Wall. We walk past that and we feel we’re in a totally different area.”
As we chatted, I was fascinated by Mymuna’s family history, a compelling strand in the tapestry of Tiger Bay. Hundreds of such stories were once woven together for all to see in the Butetown History and Arts Centre. This wonderful community project and repository of archive closed in 2016 and lives on through the work of dedicated volunteers – check out their Tiger Bay and the World Facebook Page – but is without a permanent home.
It was a true people’s museum. Created by American academic Glenn Jordan, who arrived in Wales in 1987, it began as an oral history class. Instead of finishing his PhD, Jordan gathered the memories, documents and photographs of the local community.
“I deliberately chose to stay and build up an archive,” Jordan explained in a newspaper interview in 2001. “I had this bizarre experience of looking through historical records and the images I wanted were just not there. There was almost nothing of women at work, for example. Just a few Irish women loading potatoes. Yet there were thousands of women who worked on the docks.”
Jordan’s own heritage drew him to the diversity of Butetown. His African-American father was descended from a slave owner while his mother was part Cherokee. And the history of Tiger Bay presented a particular perspective. What made it unique, he said, was the level of intermarriage between male immigrants and Welsh women. “The social history of Butetown provides us with valuable lessons about how to live with others – with people of different skin colours, beliefs and ways of life – in an atmosphere of tolerance, respect and harmony.”
That is a history lesson that has never felt more timely. Imagine building on that first-person archive, adding the interpretive audio-visual wonders that modern technology can provide and creating a world-class visitor attraction that teaches us this industrial and social Welsh history in the place where it happened.
Well there is a museum potentially on its way to Cardiff Bay. Five whole storeys including exhibition space, a library, research centre, a cafe and shops. Planned for the last open green space on the waterfront, designed by internationally-renowned architects and hoping to head here from an army barracks in… Surrey.
And its subject? Military medicine. Yes, not even just medicine but medicine connected to the four Army medical corps. We’re told among some of the more unusual items in the current collections are the box of tools used by Napoleon’s dentist, a wooden model of a horse’s leg used as a teaching aid for farriers and the death mask of Rudolph Hess.
Now I’m not averse to a niche museum. I once took my parents to the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh. My mother loved it because she’d taught a course on the History of Medicine but my father was looking increasingly green as we perused one too many pickled organs in a jar.
But why Cardiff for a Museum of Military Medicine? As far as I can make out, there are two simple answers. Firstly, no-one else wanted it. As the trustees of the museum in its current form explained on their website: “The site in Cardiff was chosen after earlier approaches to other cities around the United Kingdom came to nought.”
And secondly, it’s free. Cardiff Council leader Huw Thomas, who wrote a long explanatory thread on Twitter on the backdrop to the project after the flak started flying, underlined that the council “will not be contributing financially either to the museum relocating, or to their ongoing revenue costs. The project really has very little do with us”.
In a further tweet, Thomas adds: “A big criticism I’ve read is ‘Why not have something more relevant to Cardiff instead?’ First a reminder the Museum of Military Medicine isn’t costing the council anything. Second, I wasn’t Leader in 2016 when the Butetown History & Arts Centre closed. If I was, I hope things may have ended differently.”
It may be free but surely there is a cultural price to pay.
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In a response to an approach from Plaid Cymru MS Bethan Sayed, the Museum of Military Medicine yesterday attempted to make all the right noises about community engagement and promised to give display space to archive material relating to Welsh and Butetown history.
A diplomatic move given the museum’s previous comments on the significance of the Cardiff location didn’t amount to much more than it’s “viewed as advantageous due to its effective transport links: the city is no more than a two-hour drive from the South West, London and the West Midlands… Cardiff City Council also recognises the significance of bringing a national collection to the city as part of its tourism offer as it seeks to establish itself as a European capital.”
Wales has its own “national collections”. This feels like the heritage equivalent of searching for our own story on news-stands full of London-based papers. We never understand our own history well enough because we always have to give room to the UK perspective.
And in a part of Wales that has redefined what it is to be Welsh and given us a history lesson that has particular resonance in a world scarred by racism this is a story that needs its own museum. Black history matters.