We often think only huge, over priced and ‘lifeless’ museums are all we have as a choice for learning about our history. So what happens when you come up with a crazy idea of having a museum in a tin shed? Success happens that’s what. With passion, vision and hardwork you create the ‘tin shed experience’. The founders tell us more…
In a small corner of west Wales a crazy germ of an idea has come to fruition over the last three years. This town, ‘Laugharne’ pronounced (Larn) was once home and subsequently made famous by the late poet Dylan Thomas and it seems that his writings of ‘The town that was mad’ the original title of his most famous work ‘Under Milk Wood’ (believed to have been largely based on the inhabitants of Laugharne) may still ring true to this very day.
Now mid-way through its second tourist season is Laugharne’s quirky ‘Tin Shed Experience’ a volunteer museum of 1940s and wartime memorabilia housed in the humble surroundings of a large tin shed.
The concept came to be through a mixture of elements. Redundancy, hard work, determination, community spirit, great support and of course Tin!
The creators Andrew Isaacs and Seimon Pugh-Jones worked together in the Ministry of Defence establishment in Pendine for many years during the late 70s early 80s. Andrew worked in the armoury whereas Seimon was in the photographic department. Cuts in the MOD led to subsequent redundancies with Andrew and Seimon being two such casualties. Undeterred by this setback, Andrew started his own successful cleaning company and Seimon’s photographic skills led him to work in the TV & Film industries. Seimon has worked on HBO’s award winning miniseries ‘Band of Brothers’ and Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ to name but a few. He was also the staff photographer for the American magazine, ‘Armchair General’ where he scripted and shot much of the re-enacted scenes of war from a multitude of different time periods that littered the pages of the magazine. Both have always had a love of nostalgia and history, Andrew collects items from the American old west and even spent his summers as a ranch hand in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Seimon has a great love of the 1940s and the war era often visiting famous battlegrounds in Normandy and the rest of Europe and has accrued a vast collection of items. In 2009 they had a chance meeting in a local supermarket and got talking, eventually leading them to stage a 1940s themed dance backed by an exhibition of Seimon’s collection in Andrew’s hometown of Laugharne.
Andrew explains, ‘the exhibition went so well we thought there may be space in the township for something more permanent. Laugharne is certainly a town quirky enough for it to work in!’
The location would be Andrew’s large tin sheeted shed. Andrew goes on, ‘both myself and Seimon were stood in this dilapidated tin building full of cleaning equipment and materials when it seemed to spark an idea off in our heads almost at once. We thought, it would be great to restore the tin garage to look like it originally did when built by my father pre war.’ He goes on, ‘from there the idea grew and it became the perfect location to transform into a museum.’
The ‘Tin Shed’ was originally built in 1933 by Andrew’s father as a garage and cost £50 to construct from second hand materials. During the war it was used as a place to store and service vehicles from the Ministry of Defense and after the war returned to civillian uses including services on the motorcycles of the great Bob Berry who used it as a base for repairs for his many bikes during his motor cycle world record attempts at neighboring Pendine sands. When the garage was inherited by Andrew he used it as storage space and also as a stable for his horse, Blaze. The building was in a bit of a sorry state and would need a great deal of renovation work in order to transform it into a museum.
Seimon informs, ‘after numerous meetings with various bodies a small match funded grant from the Welsh Assembly Government was secured. Pretty soon though it dawned on us that the money would not go all that far so we turned to looking at ways in which we could use recycled materials to help us continue with the restoration and set about sourcing the right materials to keep the building in keeping with the original structure. There has been great support from the community with donations of second hand zinc sheeting coming from local farmers and other bits and pieces coming from here and there. Its estimated that a near 70% of the building has recycled elements. Through the skills, patience and understanding of our friend and builder Stephen Hughes we have managed to create something we feel is quite special.
The small team of volunteers were also very keen to help educate the younger generation and hope to highlight the effects of war on everyday life in wartime Britain. Andrew explains, “We specifically wanted the project to be educational, picking up on the national curriculum and tailoring some of the exhibit specifically for schools.”
Matthew Hughes, volunteer marketing manager of the Tin Shed stresses, “We do not wish to glamorise war, our goal is to help give an insight of what war meant to the life of ordinary civilians and those serving during the war years” He goes on, “It is important for today’s youth to know that war and conflict has the ability to shape and effect entire generations.”
The museum opened in June 2011 and saw 1700 people come to see and learn about the various exhibits. Seimon proclaims ‘Visitors can expect to spend a lot more time in the museum than they initially would have expected. Part of our name is ‘Experience’ we want our visitors to leave us knowing that they are very important to our progression. We want them to share their recollections or their father’s, mother’s, grandparent’s recollections of the 1940s so that they may be retold to the new generations ensuring the stories are kept alive and can learn from them. He goes on ‘Most visitors expect to spend 10-15 minutes walking around a cold and faceless museum when they often stay for an hour to an hour and a half. Why? Well we love people, we are very much about engaging our visitors, giving all guests personal guided tours, explaining in depth about items, informing them of local history, good places to eat in the town, where to visit. I guess we are kind of a museum/information centre. We also love learning, after all, an ‘Experience’ should not be one sided.’
We have quite a few American visitors to the town, largely through their interest of Dylan Thomas but they are always interested to learn that a large American contingent spent time in our tiny part of the world on the lead up to D-day. The 28th Infantry Division from Pennsylvania trained all along the beaches from Margam right up to Pembroke Dock from 1943 to 1945. It included a month long full scale landing and civilian control exercise on the beaches of Amroth and Saundersfoot titled ‘Operation Jantzen.’ The most interesting thing about these troops is that Pennsylvania has a large Welsh community that dates back to the late seventeenth century where a large emigration of Welsh Quakers occurred and then later in the 19th century where Welsh coal miners emigrated to the anthracite and bituminous mines. So in a way a lot of these guys that were coming over to train in Wales were likely to be returning home to the land of their forebears. We have been told some lovely accounts by people who remember the ‘Keystone’s of just how well these troops integrated into the Welsh communities when they were ‘over here.’ We are looking to build strong links with the 28th Infantry Division in light of the 70th anniversary of them coming to Wales in 2013. We would love to put on an exhibition in honour of them.
The Tin Shed however, is more than your average museum. Matthew elaborates ‘When the museum closed for the winter last year we started working on various other projects under the umbrella of the Tin Shed. We are very interested in the Arts and music and also charity fundraising. We have staged a few musical evenings with local musicians helping us raise money for local charities and organisations. We were fortunate to supply and consult on the operation of vintage camera equipment for ITVs Christmas drama ‘Just Henry’ last year and this has been inspiration for one of our current projects. We are midway through building what could be used as a small film set at the rear of the museum. It contains an original Anderson shelter that has been dug in by hand, a working man’s tin cottage complete with authentic interior as well as a victory garden. We would actively encourage film makers to get in touch to see what can be done with us as a location.’
He goes on, ‘Local heritage to us is of course of a great importance and were delighted to be approached to produce a series of retro/stylised photographic images for the towns’ iconic Browns Hotel which opened earlier this Summer.
On top of all this we are also in production of a series of life-sized fibreglass figures based on the characters from ‘Under Milk Wood’ the town of ‘Llareggub’ in the play is believed to be based on our town, Laugharne. We are doing this in conjunction with local sculptor John Howell as part of the 2014 celebrations for the centenary of Dylan Thomas’ birth. We hope to create a visitors trail around the town with the characters placed in unusual places for visitors to go off and find. We are looking for famous Dylan Thomas fans and people with connections to the poet to get involved with the design of the characters. All we require is a simple sketch or description of how they would like the character to look. We have a few artists, actors and musicians onboard as we speak. We are chasing fans like Sir Mick Jagger, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Bob Dylan, Pierce Brosnan, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Matthew Rhys and ex US President Jimmy Carter……well why not? We believe anything is achievable in a shed.’
For more information on Tin Shed Experience please visit www.tinshedexperience.co.uk
They can also be found on facebook
And on twitter as Tinshedexpo