You do what you're told

21st September 2001 at 01:00
The museum of Welsh life and culture is full of intimidating teachers and terrifying warlords. Christina Zaba steps back in time

The sound of a firm tread on wooden floorboards pervades the Victorian classroom. There is an occasional odd sigh as the children concentrate. Sunlight filters through the high windows. Fields and trees, temptingly visible through the open door, seem impossibly far away.

A girl in a long blue dress and white pinafore, her hair neatly hidden under a mob cap, timidly raises her hand.

"'Yes, child?" says the teacher in a black frock coat, with his hair tied smartly in a little ponytail. He combines authority with servitude.

"I don't understand what's written," comes the reply.

"You copy what you see, you don't have to understand it," he says severely.

"Oh," she murmurs, barely audibly, dropping her hand and looking down.

It has not taken long to turn the bright-eyed confidence of the 21st-century child into the cowed conformity of the 19th-century pupil.

The teacher turns and addresses the class coldly. "Now clean your pens on your blotters and replace the pens on the rules. I want your hands on the table then, ready for inspection. Do not stare out of the window."

Twenty pairs of hands obediently appear on the desks. They are all clean: no one wants to be punished. Although these Year 4 pupils know perfectly well that this is a role-playing exercise, they all take it seriously. It is the nearest they will ever come to what it meant to be at elementary school 100 years ago.

The children are visiting the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagan's, west of Cardiff, one of Europe's foremost open-air ethnological museums. The school is genuine, painstakingly brought from the village of Maestir near Lampeter, in Dyfed, and re-erected in 1984. It is one of nearly 60 original buildings, spanning five centuries, which have been rescued from various parts of Wales and re-erected here in 100 acres of parkland, each one authentically furnished.

You can go inside an early 19th-century worker's cottage, visit a working traditional woollen mill with its stifling heat and dust, enter a 1920s bakery, a toll-house, an Elizabethan farmhouse complete with animals, a chapel, a blacksmith's forge, a cooper's workshop and dozens of other buildings.

Among the mature trees and meadows are the walls of a Norman castle. Inside those walls is St Fagans 'Castle', a 16th-century manor house donated to the people of Wales in 1946 by the Earl of Plymouth.

It is not surprising that this is the most visited heritage attraction in Wales. "We have more than 70,000 schoolchildren every year," says education officer Matthew Davies.

"Education is what we're here for, whether it's formal school visitors or the general public," says Essex Harvard, explicator of the House for the Future. This is one of the museum's newest attractions, designed to show how housing based on traditional techniques could evolve over the next 50 years. A Year 9 group listens as he explains that the rendering for this sustainable house, a mixture of mud, dung and horsehair, is the same as the Celts used 2,000 years ago.

Elsewhere, a Year 6 group is cautiously approaching a roundhouse in a Celtic stockade and the fierce tribal leader bearing a lethal-looking broadsword.

"Your people have attacked my village, so I could chop off this boy's head now and nail it to the palisade. We Celts believe everybody's strength is in their head," he roars to the wide-eyed children, before inviting them into the roundhouse.

"The children are really excited. They keep asking what's next," twinkles their teacher before disappearing into the smoky darkness.

The Museum of Welsh Life has been developing for more than 50 years. It has always been a pioneer - one of the first museums anywhere to embark on the systematic collection of dialects, lore and language.

Now it has an audio-visual archive containing more than 8,000 tapes. Many static displays are being replaced or supplemented by expert live interpretation, including eight working craftspeople, multimedia techniques and special events, from battle re-enactments to seasonal festivals and customs.

ContactMuseum of Welsh Life, St Fagans, Cardiff CF5 6XB. Tel: 02920 573424 Email: addysg.awc@btconnect.comWeb: www.nmgw.ac.uk. Open daily, 10-5 except over Christmas. Admission free Similar sites Ulster Folk and Transport Museum Co Down. Tel: 02890 42842. Beamish Museum of Living History, Co Durham. Tel: 01207 231811. Weald and Downland Open-Air Museum, Chichester. Tel: 01243 811363.

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