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Main Building, St Fagans: National History Museum

A Grade II Listed Building in St. Fagans (Sain Ffagan), Cardiff

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Latitude: 51.4868 / 51°29'12"N

Longitude: -3.2726 / 3°16'21"W

OS Eastings: 311733

OS Northings: 177200

OS Grid: ST117772

Mapcode National: GBR HT.KFKF

Mapcode Global: VH6F5.7W7K

Entry Name: Main Building, St Fagans: National History Museum

Listing Date: 15 June 2011

Last Amended: 15 June 2011

Grade: II

Source: Cadw

Source ID: 87638

Location: In a predominantly rural setting at the entrance to the museum site, partially separated from the car-park by lawns and a screening hedge.

County: Cardiff

Community: St. Fagans (Sain Ffagan)

Community: St. Fagans

Locality: St Fagans

Traditional County: Glamorgan

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Saint Fagans


The establishment of an open air museum dedicated to Welsh rural life was a progression from an earlier commitment to Welsh folk culture, the development of which owed a great deal to the work of Cyril Fox and Iorwerth Peate. Fox was director of the National Museum from 1926-1948, and Peate was appointed to the department of archaeology in 1927, curated and developed a collection of Welsh bygones, and became the keeper of a new department of folk culture and industries in 1936. On Fox's advice, in 1930 the Museum's Council had recommended that a folk museum would be desirable, but it was not until 1943 that the Welsh Reconstruction Advisory Council accepted a proposal for an open air museum (the only one of several recommendations made by the Museum Council to be accepted). Then in 1946, the Third Earl of Plymouth and his mother the Countess of Plymouth offered St Fagans Castle with its gardens and curtilage for use as an open air museum. The gardens and castle opened to the public in 1947 and 1948 respectively, and the arrival of the first buildings on the site coincided with the Festival of Britain in 1951. Peate regarded the provision of a modern block of buildings 'for the scientific exhibition of the materials of our life and culture' as essential to the success of the museum. Plans for a new main building were first prepared by Percy Thomas and Son in 1953. Of this original proposal, only a storage block and temporary gallery was built in 1954 (it survives to the rear of the present main building). Treasury funding for more ambitious development was not available until 1964, provided in two phases (originally envisaged as 1965-7 and 1970-72), beginning with technical and administrative accommodation together with gallery and storage, and the north part of the entrance hall, then continuing in the second phase with a further two galleries, a restaurant, and completion of the entrance hall. An additional administrative wing was completed in 1976.

Percy Thomas and Sons were confirmed as architects for the development, with Dale Owen as the partner in charge, and John Hilling as the project architect. Although built in phases, the building as completed in 1976 represents the implementation of a single design concept. Work on the first phase was substantially complete by the end of 1968, but the official opening did not take place until July 1970. Work on phase two began in 1971 and was finally completed in early 1976. There have been subsequent additions and modifications (including the extensions to the restaurant block and shop, the addition of a toilet block, and the exclusion of natural light from the galleries), but these have not significantly affected the integrity of the original design.

Both architects and museum staff made visits to Scandinavian museums to research building design at other open-air museums, and the architects were also influenced by the Munch Museet, Oslo (by Fougner and Myklebust, 1963), and the Louisiana Museum of Art, Denmark (Bo and Wohlert, 1958); the final scheme for Saint Fagans clearly reflects these influences. The choice of a contemporary idiom for the new building was in marked contrast to the traditional buildings in the parkland beyond it, and a powerful symbol of a modern institution for a modern nation.

The building won the National Eisteddfod's Gold Medal in 1978.


Large but disciplined building complex in a striking modernist idiom based on a harmonious composition of simple geometric forms. Main galleries built in two phases and stepped around an internal courtyard, with shop and restaurant block to one side, and administrative range to the other. Reinforced concrete construction, with light grey brick walling and white painted fascias to flat roofs, and extensive areas of glazing. The contrast of solid walls and glazing is an important element of the design.

South gallery block comprises main entrance range of 15 structural bays (part of the second phase of construction), articulated on the ground floor by concrete pillars dividing a glazed wall, and by projecting concrete beams above the ground floor, supporting the cantilevered upper storey. This comprises blank panels of plain brickwork, with a continuous narrow band of windows beneath the projecting flat roof, broken only by a series of projecting beams. These support the roof and a set-back clerestory, which is continuously glazed and has a similar projecting roof. The present entrance is marked by a tent-like canopy (an addition of 1990).

To the right of this block, the return wall of the costume Gallery is expressed as a full height blank brick panel in line with the ground floor of the main block, but stepped back from the cantilevered upper storey. The ground floor of this range was part of the first phase of development, completed in its present form in the second phase. Beyond it, the administrative block comprises a lower two storey range (also part of the first phase) with an added wing (1974-6) projecting forward of the main range to the right. It has bands of windows to the ground floor, and a cantilevered upper storey with continuous bands of windows beneath the prominent flat roof. Similar arrangement to long return elevation and rear, beyond which is a contemporary service courtyard, incorporating the original store and gallery building of 1954, a simple framed structure, faced in brick and with a shallow curved roof.

The main gallery block is built around an internal courtyard: here, the rear elevation of the south range is similar to its front elevation. To the east the Costume Gallery range is blank brickwork panels with prominent flat roof, whilst the west wing (the main access to the site) is a series of stepped and interlocking blocks descending towards the rear exit to the main site (where the effect is marred by a ramp and UPVC conservatory added in 1990). Each of these blocks comprises continuous glazing between concrete pillars supporting the flat roofs. Rear range (Oriel 1 - the Material Culture Gallery) was part of the original gallery block, and comprises blank brickwork panels with three narrow vertical windows, and clerestory glazing divided by the projecting joists that support the roof; further clerestory set back with similar detail. This arrangement is substantially repeated in the rear elevation of this range but without windows. The courtyard itself is ramped between terraces, with a sunken cobbled area intended originally as a pool.

Set back to the left of the main block is the restaurant and shop area (completed in 1976 but extended on two floors to the west in 1989). Glazed ground-floor divided by concrete pillars surmounted by deep projecting flat roof, a forward extension from the original building line, resulting in the upper floor (the restaurant) now being stepped back from the front elevation. It comprises 7 bays of continuous glazing with a grid of windows, articulated by the projecting beams that support the prominent roof. Rear lacks the upper storey set-back, and has a simpler solid form, lightened by continuous bands of fenestration wrapped round both elevations to ground floor, with banded fenestration piercing solid brick panels above, and clerestory glazing to kitchen area. Ground floor links to a service and toilet block projecting to the front of the main building line. This was added in 1990-91, but adopts a somewhat similar idiom, with largely blank walling and a projecting flat roof.


Present entrance aligned with the west wing which is the main axis providing access to shop, restaurant, galleries and open-air site. Accommodating to the sloping site, this axis steps up towards the rear, with glazed wall onto internal courtyard, but dominated by the ramp access to upper floors. Galleries arranged as a continuous sequence around three sides of the courtyard on the upper level, and on two sides on the lower level, leaving the ground floor of the south range as café space (originally a display area for carts and wagons). Administrative block is arranged with a spinal corridor plan.

Reasons for Listing

Listed for its special architectural interest as one of the foremost essays in pure modernism in Wales, employing simple geometric forms and contrasting solid and glazed planes in a clear articulation of space and function. The building is the work of one of Wales's leading twentieth century architectural practices, the Percy Thomas Partnership. The building uses its striking Scandinavian-influenced modernist style as a powerful symbol of modern nationhood, and is of special historic interest as a major national commission which reflects the importance accorded to Welsh traditional culture in the modern Welsh nation.

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