A new arts centre for Merthyr

I went to the opening of Redhouse this weekend in Merthyr town centre. Formerly the derelict and boarded up Old Town Hall, the imposing building has been transformed into an important piece of cultural heritage for the town which will hopefully become the source of pride and stature that the Old Town Hall once was. It has been turned into an arts centre with magnificent exhibition spaces, a cafe and computer suites for Merthyr College film students. The capital development and creative programme of Merthyr Tydfil Old Town Hall has been funded by the Welsh Government, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council in association with Miller Argent, CADW & the European Regional Development Fund.

I took my 4-year old daughter Cerys with me to the opening. As it was St David’s Day, Cerys insisted on dressing in traditional Welsh costume of a pink fairy outfit complete with Welsh flag.

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It was a lovely sunny day and, as we drove up the A470 (the dual carriageway from Cardiff up to Brecon), the snow-topped mountains in the background looked stunning. The Welsh Valleys are simply beautiful, it is undeniable. We got to Merthyr and found somewhere to park relatively easily, and walked to the main street where Redhouse is. I have walked past it many times since starting a project in Merthyr in July last year, but it looked so different without the boards and scaffolding I had become used to. It is a huge ‘Terracotta Palace‘, as Richard Davies has called it in his film about the history of the building and the development of Redhouse:

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Inside, the building is beautiful. The dragon mosaic in the entrance porch has been wonderfully restored as has a huge stained glass window which you see as you climb the stairs:

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ImageIn the front exhibition rooms, Redhouse has made visible the people that contributed to the reconstruction of the building, including carpenters, joiners, electricians, plasterers, builders, project managers, artists and administrators. The exhibition is called Heroes and Villains: The Story Continues…

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I thought this was a really nice first exhibition; as Cerys asked me “when did these people die mummy?” I realised we aren’t very good at remembering everyday people who are making things happen now.

But for me, the most memorable and show-stopping part of our visit was the exhibition of banners made by each of the wards in Merthyr. Led by Head for Arts, this project enabled members of each community to create their own representation of place. The 20ft banners were hung vertically in the central atrium space enabling visitors to wander through them:

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love the Gurnos banner, which an inter-generational knitting group contributed to by creating a knitted version of the community centre which was then digitally captured to create the banner. Banners have been an important expression of identity and protest in South Wales’ history. This year is the 30th Anniversary of the UK Miner’s Strike, an incredibly important event in South Wales’ industrial, political and social history which people can remember vividly and which affected families who remained in the area long after industry died.

The South Wales Miner’s Library in Swansea has a collection of original banners used in the strikes, and we hope to bring them back onto the streets alongside contemporary representations such as the banners that were made for Redhouse, as well as other banners made by school pupils in North Merthyr, the case study area I am working in. As part of the AHRC’s Connected Communities Festival, we have applied for funding to showcase our research. If successful, we will develop a ‘mobile exhibition’ with the community groups and artists we have met during the research. Part of this will consist of a banner march down the Taff Trail to Cardiff Bay (the Taff Trail is a path running by the River Taff which was the waterway connecting Merthyr to the rest of the world). Local historians and musicians will revive the old union songs with groups of school pupils, and help them to create their own song to march to. We won’t be able to us the original banners in Redhouse that I love so much, but we may be able to reproduce them on a smaller scale, with poles so they can be carried on the march. We will find out at the end of March if we have the funding to do the mobile exhibition, so fingers crossed!

Redhouse, with its clock symbolically working once more, breathes fresh air into Merthyr town centre. Unlike out of town developments like leisure parks and health parks, it brings the promise of new facilities to the people of Merthyr without expecting them to travel far to get there: it is right in the town centre. Having said that, it remains to be seen if people from outside the city centre will travel to town to visit Redhouse; transport is an additional expense and can be a barrier for many. Perhaps the history of the building itself, and the role it once played in the political identity of the town, will set it apart from new-build developments. Redhouse represents the town as being full of pride, hope, aspiration and confidence, in contrast to the discourses of failure and hopelessness often felt to characterize communities where there is high unemployment, poor health and low educational outcomes. Whilst these social ‘problems’ remain, Redhouse brings some much needed attention to the assets and glory also contained within this important Welsh town.

 

 

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