In the US recently, we have seen Confederate monuments and statues constructed to foster a divisive and delusional vision of the past coming under sustained criticism, protests, counter-protests and counter-counter-protests. President Donald J. Trump claimed there was ‘violence on all sides’. Some on the far-right and from other perspectives have suggested any attempt to challenge the presence of these monuments is an attack on ‘beauty’ and ‘history’ itself. Yet of course, monuments have always been contested and political, and building new monuments and artworks at ancient monuments can be divisive too.
Yet identity-politics and monuments have long clashed in Wales too, in very different ways. Monuments and public artworks within historic spaces can evoke the past in powerful and challenging ways that either complement, or operate as counterpoints to, the official heritage narratives of the sites. For Wales, this blog has previously tackled the art appended to medieval castle ruins in recent decades. This art is seemingly almost always state-funded and state-sanctioned at Cadw sites: not generated by local communities or funded primarily by them.
Indeed, they are increasingly costly and tied to an overt desire to foster international tourism. In doing so, they are extracting money that might otherwise go into the conservation of the monuments themselves to make them safe, accessible and enduring for future generations, or new archaeological research to reveal fresh information about them and their historic landscapes so that local people, academics and visitors can learn fresh things about the ruins. Still, art seems to be regarded as the principal strategy for attracting more visitors. The dragons in particular have proved very popular as a temporary moving exhibition across Wales.
Alongside heritage tourism, much of the art is intended to make the past exciting and engaging, fostering the imagination but also a sense of cultural identity that is distinctive and ‘Welsh’. This is important, given that for many castle ruins, they could be considered overt manifestations of past and present English colonial influence. Notably, very few ‘Welsh’ castles – castles created or used for significant durations by Welsh princes and lords – have received this art.
Likewise, it is important to note that these are martial sites and the art speaks to their martial past. No similar aristic proliferation can be found at (say) Welsh medieval religious ruins, such as its many abbeys, priories, churches and chapels. The art is a response to power and the elite, their military campaigns and in particular the contestation between Welsh lords and princes and the English crown and its representatives and Marcher lords.
All the more confusing then, when last month it became clear that the Welsh assembly had agreed new plans for improving facilities and access at Flint Castle that included a major new art installation. For context, it is important to state that Flint has a distinctive and awkward history in terms of state intervention. It is one of the most sensitive of the English medieval castle sites given its proximity to the English border. I say sensitive also because there is a long history of dispute regarding the significance of Flint Castle, the presence (or lack of) a Welsh flag at the site, and a sense by some in the community that it is relatively neglected by Cadw and others compared with other monuments and sites farther west. Another dimension worth highlighting is that parts of Flintshire are now a focus of extreme politics of multiple dimensions, including popular support for UKIP in some districts.
In this light, the Welsh assembly’s ministerial decision to approve a gigantic art installation close to the castle in the form of an iron ring emerging out of the ground is really quite surprising. Not only because of the cost of the work, and the potential damage it might cause to below-ground archaeological remains, as well as the seeming incongruity to the story of Flint Castle, it came to the public’s attention that the art might be readily interpreted as celebrating the invasion, power and domination of the English king Edward I whose castles were intended to form an ‘iron ring’ around North Wales and secure his conquest.
I do wonder how these designs get so far without the architects themselves, or Cadw, or the Welsh assembly minister in question and his advisors, revealing the potential for a negative interpretation of this planned installation. Did they not consult with people in Flintshire? Did they not consult with heritage specialists about this art? Was it shown to medieval historians and archaeologists with expertise in understanding the specific story of Flint and its fortifications from the 13th century down to the present day? The problem with this ‘Game of Thrones’ style art, is that it sits on a thin dividing line between fantasy and fascist.
That debacle aside, what of the future? While I remain scepticism as to whether art installations are a panacea for Welsh heritage sites, there are plenty of striking and evocative artworks that do provide a positive precedent for what might be done at Flint. So while I was critical views (for example) of the temporary art installation at Caernarfon Castle here, and also here, for Flint, I saw the positive aspects of the dragon’s presence last year. I also rather like the art at Cilgerran Castle and Kidwelly, and the rather ridiculous romanticism of the sculpture at Llandovery has grown on me. In future blogs, I aim to address the monuments at Harlech and Caerphilly in a not altogether negative fashion.
Still, I do wonder whether this might actually be the turning point. Is this the beginning of the end of this craze of populating castle ruins with art? Perhaps instead the Welsh assembly will invest in community archaeological excavations to find out more about these sites, or improve access to those with physical and mental disabilities, or reliable and enriched digital resources to explore them and replace their relatively spartan websites.