Keeping Alive a Golden Age of Slate; 40 YEARS OF THE MUSEUM TELLING THE STORY OF NORTH WALES' QUARRYING HERITAGE
Byline: ROB DAVIES
IN August 1969, the Dinorwig slate quarry near Llanberis was shut down along with its Victorian workshops. It was the end of an era for the world's second largest slate quarry covering more than 700 acres, all linked by extensive internal tramways.
But as one door closed another was shortly to open for this enormous site, which had hosted slate mining since 1787. In May 1972, the quarry was reborn as a museum showcasing the area's slate heritage.
If such a transformation was a sure sign that the glory days were over, at least it meant that they were not to be forgotten.
And now, 40 years on, what has become the National Slate Museum is itself at the forefront of an industry in its own right - evolving into one of North Wales's key visitor attractions.
In May this year, an exhibition called Fab Forty was opened charting the establishment of the museum and the proud quarrying story it seeks to tell.
A special anniversary magazine has been produced to mark the milestone, containing contributions from many of the key people involved in the museum.
Tomorrow museum keeper Dr Dafydd Roberts will give a lecture looking at the history of slate museums in the area, titled Quarrying the Past. Dr Roberts will be reflecting on the last four decades and what it took to create the museum. It was, he says, a collaboration of enthusiastic local people, Caernarfonshire County Council, the National Museum of Wales and the Ancient Monuments Branch of the Welsh Office (CADW's predecessor) which ensured that "miracles" were achieved in a few months.
He wants also to celebrate the various contributions of the staff who worked long hours in the run-up to the museum's opening.
A key task was to ensure that the workshops looked as they did when the craftsmen left in the summer of 1969. The atmosphere created by the opening of the museum was likened by the industrial archaeologist and historian Dr Gwynfor Pierce Jones to being like Dinorwig quarry itself reopening - it's a sentiment Dr Roberts shared upon taking up his post as keeper in 1981.
"There have been many developments and changes since then - the most important, no doubt, commencing with the submission of an application for Heritage Lottery funding in 1996/97. For me, this was an exciting period, an opportunity to utilise the immense potential of the site. And it was a great success - our visitor numbers grew beyond our expectations, particularly after the National Assembly of Wales introduced its enlightened policy of free entry for all in 2001," says Dr Roberts.
"What has remained consistent over the 40 years is the praise afforded our staff, and the appreciation of the unique atmosphere of an industrial site which continues to evolve. Our exhibition, and this anniversary magazine, celebrate the contribution of everyone involved with the National Slate Museum, from its inception to the present day. I hope many more people will visit over the years to enjoy them."
There certainly seems to be no waning of public interest. More than 140,000 people continue to pour through its doors every year to watch slate splitting demonstrations, visit the quarrymen's houses, look at the huge waterwheel or see the steam engine - which is typical of the sort used in the quarries from the 1860s onwards.
The National Slate Museum, one of seven sites of the National Museum of Wales, has now been visited by nearly three million people since 1972.
In his lecture Dr Roberts will point out how its origins date back as far as the 1950s, when attempts were already being made to preserve the heritage of the quarry for the future.
But is it not a pity that what was once a living industry should end up as a museum? "Remember that the industry is still alive in north west Wales, there are working quarries," replies Dr Roberts.
"Yes it is sad that an industry has to become a museum, but we emphasise our links with the working quarries and we tell people how slate is now worked at them. …