Forgotten tribes

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Jonathan Croall travels to mid-Wales to visit an exhibition and interpretive centre which offers belated recognition of the Celtic contribution to European history.

The Celts have played such a major part in the history of Europe over the last 3,000 years, it seems remarkable that there has been no museum or centre in the UK devoted exclusively to exploring their culture.

That gap has now been filled by Celtica, a multimedia exhibition and interpretive centre that opened just over a year ago in the Welsh town of Machynlleth in mid-Wales. Housed in a handsome mansion that once belonged to the Marquis of Londonderry, it looks at the many achievements of the Celtic peoples in the past, but also asks questions about their future.

Costing Pounds 2.8 million, Celtica is bang up to date technologically. Designed by John Sutherland, who also created the Jorvik Centre at York, it uses all the latest technology - film, special effects, interactive displays - to recreate the distinctive world of the Celts.

The Celts are thought to be the first iron-working people of northern Europe. The Greeks were the first to refer to the Keltoi to describe in 500BC a group of tribes which shared a common culture and dominated much of Europe at the time.

But the Celts left no written records: their history was written by the Greeks and the Romans with whom they came into contact. So evidence of their traditions, technologies, arts and crafts, and their way of life, has had to be deduced from the settlements and artefacts they left behind.

One of the centrepieces of the initial walk-through audio-visual exhibition at Celtica is a re-creation of a village settlement of around 50 ad, peopled by life-size models of a blacksmith, a cook, a druid, a carpenter, a bard, a slave, a lady chieftain and a warrior.

The characters are celebrating a victorious raid. In the next room you get a chance, via actors on film, to hear the inner thoughts of each of them. "Drunk as usual," is the woman's comment on the men; "I want respect," pleads the bard.

But the most challenging part of the exhibition comes in the Vortex, a small circular amphitheatre in which you are invited to sit around a circular "pool".

Out of this bubbles a film of the boy Gwydion, who journeys to the future in the guise successively of a golden eagle, horse and mouse, to report to the bard on how the Celts have fared over the past 2,000 years.

Through a succession of striking, fast-moving images, the boy's innocent reporting implicitly challenges our notion of progress, considering questions such as the stewardship of the earth - "People take from the land as though it is theirs" - and the survival of religion in the face of the rise of Christianity -"Our Gods have gone".

Other rooms in the exhibition focus on Wales. One offers a series of paintings and spoken poetry that describe the historic events that shaped Celtic history in the Principality.

In the final section a short film using the song Yma o Hyd ("We're Still Here") underlines the continuance of the Celtic strain.

The exhibition emphasises how integral poetry was to the everyday life of the Celts, with the druids and bard keeping the oral tradition alive. It also illuminates their inventiveness: their tools are almost identical to those used in the forges, mines and factories of the industrial revolution.

Heroism is also seen as a basic characteristic. The Celtic warriors, who often went naked into battle, were known for their reckless bravery, in contrast to the tight discipline of the Roman army.

However, the commentary, through headsets in Welsh or English, is at times a trifle overblown, dotted as it is with sentiments such as "Each warrior is a battle cry in the flesh" or "The poet stalks the soul of the Celt".

This is in stark contrast to the tone of the more conventional but highly informative exhibition in the interpretive centre, which contains three rooms of photographs, illustrations, replica artefacts, and a series of "time walls" from 500,000BC onwards, placing the Celts in a world history context.

One section identifies some modern examples of the "Celtic Genius", ranging from writers and artists such as James Joyce, Gwen John and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, to an impressive array of inventors that includes John Logie Baird, Sir Alexander Fleming, Alexander Bell, Joseph Lister, Sir Humphrey Davy, Richard Trevithick and John McAdam.

With the Celts being a topic for study in the Welsh national curriculum, and being of relevance to the Romans on the English one, Celtica is offering a lot of educational back-up to school parties, which is flexible enough to meet the needs of different schools, or different age groups in one school.

Local theatre director Gill Ogden has devised drama workshops with costumed actors, based on story-telling and problem-solving, enabling children to engage in role playing, craft activities, story making and drawing.

There's even a brightly coloured room for nursery-age children, providing a safe-play area with Celtic designs on the play equipment, and copies of the celebrated Welsh epic, The Mabinogion, lying to hand.

Education officer Lowri Angharad Jones emphasises the child-friendly nature of what's on offer in the exhibition. "Children can touch anything, feel the fabrics, discover things for themselves, ask questions," she says.

The centre has two spacious education rooms and can offer a individual guide to each school group. It is also about to become an academic centre for Celtic studies, with a regular programme of lectures, seminars and conferences.

Celtica, Y Plas, Aberystwyth Road, Machynlleth, Montgomeryshire, Mid Wales SY20 8ER. Tel: 01654 702702

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