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Cynon Valley Museum & What We Found There

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

As a former history student, I have a great interest in social history and local heritage. At university, I studied a lot of Welsh history, however, I never learnt about the history of the Jewish communities in Wales. Similarly, as a recent conservation student and volunteer, I have experience in museums, libraries and archives working with objects of social history. Thus, I recognised this as an opportunity to provide my knowledge and skills for the project, as well as learn and develop them. Furthermore, on a personal note, I strongly resonate with the aims of JHASW and our project: to preserve the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of the Jewish communities of South Wales and to raise awareness and enhance local knowledge by making the historical records, artefacts, and oral histories available to the public. Unfortunately, the Jewish community that once existed throughout South Wales has drastically declined. Thus, the most important aspect of the project to me is preserving the life and stories of the community, keeping their voice alive through the objects and materials that we discover and share.

I am based at Cynon Valley Museum in Aberdare. We are searching their vast collection to find, research and share the objects or cultural materials formerly belonging to or associated with the local Jewish community. We began searching the museums’ collections documentation database, MODES, using keywords relating to the Jewish community. Unfortunately, it is not always likely that the database will have sufficient evidence or information of the context, use and value of the object in question. Thus, we are also using this project to update and inform Cynon Valley’s database to allow a better understanding of the collection for future benefit. Once we identify any Jewish material, we catalogue it and digitally scan it. All the scans will be uploaded to the Peoples’ Collection Wales website so that they can be accessed by all audiences; professionals, academics and the public. Alongside the scans, there will be short but detailed descriptions of the objects, which we produce by thoroughly explaining its use, purpose and context in the Jewish community in Aberdare. Thus, we are adding new interpretations to existing materials and building a better understanding of this important social group within South Wales. It really is an exciting project that has so many different and important aspects to it.

To our surprise and delight, we have discovered significant objects that provide evidence of Jewish businesses existing in Aberdare. These items are interesting because they highlight the socioeconomic climate for Jews in Aberdare. For example, we discovered that one of Aberdare’s most popular and successful businesses was run by a large Jewish family, the Freeds. Victor Freed Ltd was a musical instrument and furnishing company, which during its heyday had shops in Aberdare, Mountain Ash and Cardiff. The objects we have found in relation to its trade range from records and record sleeves, branded paper bags, product invoices and even an old vacuum cleaner, currently on display at Cynon Valley Museum, which was purchased from a Victor Freed shop. However, my favourite object that we have found so far is a glass slide advertising Jane Cooper, a women’s clothing shop in Aberdare owned by Jewish businesswoman, Ruth Golding. It is likely that the glass slide was used in cinemas as an advertisement before the film began (just like today!)

Written by Rhian Hall, JHASW volunteer.

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