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Chemistry, Art and Heritage

CHART and the department of Chemistry at Swansea University explored the role that art and creative engagement can play in communicating complex chemical processes whilst exploring the significance of the rich industrial heritage of the Lower Swansea Valley.
A group of ceramic crucibles

In partnership with the ceramist and contemporary artist Esther Ley, and generously funded by the Royal Society of Chemistry, the project brought community members together from across the region to engage in the re-creation of small crucible vessels – known as ‘cupels’ – that had been recovered by Black Mountains Archaeology during recent excavations of the old Morfa Copperworks site, Swansea.

When we think of South Wales, there is a tendency to think of heavy industry and to ignore the fact that places like Swansea were hot beds of scientific innovation. The recovery of these vessels, used in the testing process, were a timely reminder of just how sophisticated the chemical processes being developed in South Wales were in the nineteenth century.

Groups from the homelessness charity Crisis, from the young people’s mental health group Platfform, and from GS Artists’ excellent 9to90 creative community were invited to come along and mould their own crucibles and to creatively glaze them with all sorts of colours in imitation of the glazes left on the original crucibles as they went through the assaying process. During socially distanced workshops, staff from Swansea University gave demonstrations on the chemical processes at play and presented some of the archaeological and historical information relating to the metallurgical industries of South Wales.

The result was a set of over 100 beautifully crafted crucibles which we then used as the inspiration for a temporary exhibition at the National Waterfront Museum. Since, the project has grown legs; the exhibition was rolled over into Oriel Science and the project content is now forming the basis of teaching resources for Key Stage Level 3 and 4 teacher training sessions delivered by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

What this project demonstrated more than anything is the power of multi-disciplinary approaches to place-making and how by adopting a range of approaches, a broader and more diverse audience can be engaged in complex historical narratives and detailed understandings of chemical science.

Project lead: Alex Langlands. Project members: Esther Ley

Project duration: 2021-2022

Contact Alex:

Follow Alex on Twitter: @AlexJLanglands