Museum Prize Readers Poll - Pembrokeshire Museum Service

By Corinne Field
Shows a photograph of Varda and some of the children who study at the Priory Learning Centre.

Photo: The Varda with children from the Priory Learning Centre who use it as an alternative classroom. Courtesy of Pembrokeshire Museum Service.

The Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year is the UK's largest arts prize and, with the judges in the process of picking the winner, we want to know what you think.

Click here to see the full shortlist and vote for the museum or gallery you think should be on the receiving end of £100,000.

Read on to find out why Pembrokeshire Museum Service made it onto the shortlist.

Varda is a travelling exhibition of Romany Gypsy history and culture in Britain created by Pembrokeshire Museum Service working in collaboration with local gypsy communities.

Set in a traditional varda, Romani for 'living wagon', and true to the gypsy experience this uniquely staged exhibition travels from place to place.

The first stop on the varda tour was Monkton Priory Learning Unit where gypsy children are taught. In fact this is where the project originated. Beverley Stephens, a teacher at the unit, contacted the museum service to enquire about a possible display of her pupil’s work on gypsy history.

Liz McIvor, Museums Officer for Education and Outreach, was inspired by Beverley's enquiry but decided to put on a much more comprehensive and innovative exhibition with the local community in mind.

She says, "I thought we should be doing something more permanent as the Romany community is the largest ethnic minority community in the area".

The school children were her way in, and through them she started to meet their parents and grandparents. After discussing what they would like to include in an exhibition about their history and culture it was decided to stage it in a varda.

Shows a photograph of the inside of the varda. There are pictures hanging on the wood-panelled walls and two sets of headphones on display.

Photo: Inside the varda are costumes, blankets, lamps, kitchen equipment used by Romany Gypsies in the past. Courtesy of Pembrokeshire Museum Service.

There are five different styles of varda. The one used for this exhibition is a 'bow top', the most popular style and the cheapest. It can be pulled by a single horse and is good on rough ground, 100 years ago there weren’t many roads in Wales so the bow top was a popular choice.

When it is on site, the varda is not manned by museum staff. There is a designated key holder who can choose when it is open and the exhibition is free to everyone.

Initially Liz feared it could be a target for vandals or graffiti artists. "We put our trust into the community," says Liz, "so far there’s not a scratch on it."

The varda travels only during the spring and summer months. Using horses borrowed from the local community, the varda is pulled in the traditional way from one site to the next, but only if the sites are less than 12 miles apart - the maximum distance a horse can pull a wooden varda like this one.

In the winter it is covered up to protect it and preserve it for future exhibitions. In fact its seasonal outings add to the authenticity of the experience.

Liz tells me gypsies would have travelled from place to place during spring and summer and, to protect their wooden homes from the elements, would have holed up in the woods and covered the varda in autumn and winter.

Finding artefacts to display inside the varda was not easy. Liz compiled a wish list based on her conversations with members of Pembrokeshire’s Romany community.

"Some of the things were quite difficult to find," says Liz, "travelling life is very different now." She had to beg borrow and steal from the county collections, contacts she made through Peter Ingram, an influential member of Hampshire’s gypsy community, and through Lincolnshire’s Romany Museum.

On show are costumes, blankets, lamps, cooking equipment and craft items. Romany gypsies made wooden pegs, wooden chrysanthemums and withy baskets that they sold to housewives as they moved around the country.

Pre-war there were no factory manufactured pegs. Wooden pegs had a tendency to rot and needed replacing so the gypsy’s pegs were a vital resource.

The costume on open display is a replica made by a Pembrokeshire seamstress who was given advice and patterns by Romany ladies living in the area.

Shows a photograph of the inside of the varda. A traditional Romany blanket, quilt and a replica woman's Romany costume are on display.

Photo: A local seamstress made this costume with the help of local Romany ladies. Courtesy of Pembrokeshire Museum Service.

There is a Romany Museum in Spalding and there are museums with gypsy caravans on show elsewhere in Britain but no permanent travelling exhibitions like Varda.

"The Gulbenkian is all about innovation and doing new things and reaching new audiences," explains Liz. "I have never seen anything like this that is permanent."

"I think we should win to encourage other people to do this sort of project - to go to socially excluded communities and get them involved."

She adds, "It is important to keep trying to do things and reach new people, that’s why museum’s exist."

If Varda does win it will mean a big injection of cash for Pembrokeshire Museum Service, the prize money is £100,000.

"We put Varda together for £7,000 – with £100,000 we could do so much more," says Liz. "To us that would make a huge difference. It would mean we could do projects like this for different communities in the future as well as develop resources for Romany communities."

"We are proof that you can make a difference without huge budgets."

Varda is a permanent exhibition and will travel every year in season. Every season it does a month at the County Museum at Scolton Manor and this year it will travel to four other Pembrokeshire sites, all of them places with a gypsy population or where gypsy children go to school.

Sageston is on the list, so are Haverfordwest, Kingsmoor Common and Pembroke Dock. If you want to see Varda out of season, private views can be arranged by calling the Pembrokeshire Museum Service.

The 24 Hour Museum is conducting a poll to find out who our readers want to win this year's Gulbenkian Prize.

To vote for the Pembrokeshire Museum Service click here.

If you haven’t decided yet which museum you want to win there will be another chance to vote in March when we will feature the full shortlist.

To find out more about the Gulbenkian Prize, click on this link to visit the website.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: