The BBC turned the ripe old age of 100 in October, meaning it’s not only owed a royal birthday letter but it’s also, undeniably, an institution that has spanned the lives of basically every living person in the UK – and many beyond it. As for the BBC’s anniversary broadcasting in Wales, that’s actually still to come next February. However, National Museum Cardiff is popping the champagne early with the unveiling of a major exhibition this weekend, BBC 100 In Wales, which will run until April 2023.
As Principal Curator Sioned Williams explained to me at a press preview on Thursday, the exhibit is both an exploration of the BBC in Wales and a distillation of BBC Cymru Wales’ history, established here a couple of decades after the BBC’s conception in 1922. It’s an important distinction as Wales’ relationship with the broadcaster is unique among the British Isles – even next to Scotland’s Alba or Ireland’s RTE. Though not unanimously agreed upon, establishing Welsh-language programming and channels, which much of the exhibit is dedicated to, has had a big impact on its revival and, even in English, content of Welsh origin and specificity that’s widely accessible has informed a sense of nationalism and identity for decades, generation to generation.
Then there’s the fact that the corporation’s presence in Wales – Cardiff, to be more exact – has increased significantly in the last 15 years: first with the establishment of Roath Lock studios to relaunch Doctor Who, as well as the more recent completion of its Central Square stronghold, which dominates the newly refurbished concourse outside of Cardiff Central station. Remnants of its humbler Llandaff HQ, now gone, have been acquired by the museum not only for the BBC 100 exhibit but to be preserved in the long term, underscoring their importance to not only broadcast history but Welsh cultural heritage.
In other words, it’s a prime time for Wales’ national museum to turn its attention to one of Britain’s national treasures – and outside of London, it’s the only attraction of its kind at the moment.
To enshrine the BBC in such glittering terms isn’t to say that the producers of BBC 100 In Wales felt pressured or obliged to create something that’s nothing but empty praise. When I asked if the corporation had any say in the exhibit’s content, other than the loan of archival materials, the curating team denied there was any whatsoever: in fact, the BBC has been so keen to preserve the museum’s objectivity – and make visitors feel assured of this perspective – representatives even stayed away from this preview morning, despite being invited.
What they are keen to be involved in, however, is public opinion during the five-month course of the exhibit. The main attraction to the public will undoubtedly be the nostalgic puppets and collectibles from children’s TV classics on display – like the iconic feline chonk that is Bagpuss and homegrown hero SuperTed – as well as modern costumes and props from the likes of Wales-made hits like His Dark Materials, Doctor Who, Casualty and Sherlock. (Daleks, by the way, are scarily bigger than you expect them to be.) But there are challenging questions and thought-provoking points mixed in among all this designed to encourage debate among viewers and dialogue between the public and both the museum and the BBC.
Amgueddfa Cymru Producers (part of the museum’s network of young people involved with the exhibition’s assemblage) were tasked with examining the BBC’s duty to and problem with impartiality, balance, and inclusion. A large whiteboard encourages you to leave your opinion concerning the presentation of news, fair representation, and how this section has made you feel, which will be collected, archived, and shared with the BBC. The ACPs hope the forum’s independence from the BBC will engender people to be as honest as possible.
Another ACP contribution is more lighthearted – a real news desk with cards of text featuring real underreported stories that you can have a go at presenting yourself. On the whole, the balance between immersion, interactivity, and passive viewing is a good one throughout the exhibit, making it well-balanced for most ages and interest levels.
My only criticism is that there aren’t more never-before-seen materials on display, which seems to have been an unfortunate side-effect of the BBC’s ‘hands off’ association. But with a century’s worth of information and objects to parse through, handily filtered down to what is considered essential, I doubt there’ll be anyone who can confidently say they’ve seen and can remember it all.
As you leave BBC 100, placards ask you to ponder what the future of the corporation might be; an almost impossible question to answer that’ll be coloured by each generation’s differing relationship with it, and politically prescient given its looming threats to funding. Will the BBC still be shaping our lives as much in another 100 years? The only thing that seems certain is that no matter your age, nothing beats meeting Bagpuss in person.
BBC 100, National Museum Cardiff, Thurs 8 Dec.
On until Sun 16 Apr. Admission: FREE. To coincide with the centenary celebrations in Wales, the museum will host a family event on Sat 11 Feb. Info: here.
words HANNAH COLLINS
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