St Fagans National Museum of History exhibition space; St Fagans National Museum of History exhibition space;

Making History - St Fagans museum, Cardiff

How do you redevelop Wales’ favourite museum?

The Making History project has been the most significant redevelopment of Wales’ best-known museum in its 70-year history. St Fagans National Museum of History is an open-air museum set in 100 acres of historic woodland on the outskirts of the Welsh capital, Cardiff. It is Wales’ largest and most popular heritage attraction, attracting 500,000 visitors annually.

Year-on-year increases in visitor numbers had led to piecemeal changes to the site. A review in 2009/10 concluded that elements of the site were no longer fit for purpose, with problems including unused gallery spaces, no clear sense of arrival for visitors, and ad-hoc extensions added over the years. A difficult-to-navigate main building that was beginning to deteriorate was also a concern. A decision was made to undertake a major extension and overhaul of the facilities to meet the expectations of the next generation of visitors.

Arup was appointed to deliver a full set of building and site engineering services, including geotechnical, civil, structural, mechanical, electrical and public health engineering as well as BREEAM-based sustainability consultancy. This work extended through detailed design of both the extension and major refurbishment of the existing main building as well as a 1000m² new-build gallery, education and craft space set in woodland, called Y Gweithdy.

Project Summary

new exhibition galleries

1new courtyard roof

8xmore space for education

The museum features a Grade II listed modernist main building as well as more than 40 other listed and historic buildings that have been carefully dismantled from across Wales and re-erected on site. The redevelopment project was designed to improve the relationship between the museum’s main building and its surroundings and to disperse visitors more effectively around the site, providing capacity for sustainable growth over the coming 50 years. Our client, National Museums Wales, also wished to improve educational facilities for the large numbers of visiting school children and to create a new space for archaeological exhibits. These have been relocated from a Cardiff city centre site as a way of bringing artefacts from 230,000 years of Welsh history together in one place.

© Phil Boorman Photography

Restoring and redeveloping a listed building

Our engineers worked closely with Purcell’s architectural team, including on the design of a cost-effective roof structure for the newly-enclosed courtyard space. The roof design allowed for the incorporation of building services, while retaining the courtyard volume. This was an essential element of the design team’s focus on respecting the original listed architecture. Alongside this, the walls of the courtyard space were restored with careful dismantling, cleaning and reuse of original bricks, combined with new bricks that were sourced to match. 

Integrating new and existing structures

Due to the nature of the museum exhibits, new mechanical, electrical and public health systems were designed to deliver specific environmental conditions. Our team was able to detail the extension structure to integrate these new building services systems seamlessly within the existing building fabric, thereby protecting listed façades.

We consulted extensively with the museum and exhibition teams to ensure building services in the galleries met current exhibition requirements and would offer flexibility for the future, should spaces be reconfigured. To achieve this, we minimised the visual impact of the building services, concealing connection points behind walls and within ceiling formations.  A grid of power and data was provided within the walls, into which cut-outs can be made to add future connections.

Structural challenges

The main building’s original fabric was in a poor condition. Its 1970s concrete structure was degrading and there were leaks into gallery spaces. Without engineering record drawings to work with, our team used core sampling and reinforcement scanning to confirm the loading capacity of the structure and to identify areas where the original design was deficient. These were rectified as part of the works.

Studies showed that the floor loading in some of the gallery spaces was insufficient for the display of heavy exhibits. Through our study of the structure and discussions with the museum’s exhibition team, we were able to position a number of significant and heavy standing stones within the gallery with only local discrete slab strengthening. To ease installation these exhibits were pre-positioned in the space and built around. In new areas of the building we reviewed the museum’s collections to determine a higher loading allowance that offers curators greater flexibility for future updates to the exhibitions while balancing cost and efficiency.

3D modelling was used to assist with the integration of completely new services routes and with coordination of connections between new and existing structures, where varying wall, floor and roof levels and angles created complex geometries.

St Fagans National Museum of History St Fagans National Museum of History

Sustainability on a sensitive site

The redevelopment of the St Fagans site had to be sympathetic to the more than three dozen historic relocated buildings that sit within it, as well as to the historically and ecologically-sensitive location. The site is a designated conservation area and a site of special scientific interest.

© Craig Auckland/Fotohaus

Engaging with the environment

The design of the new-build Gweithdy minimises the structure’s impact on the surrounding woodland and has achieved a BREEAM Excellent sustainability rating. Our team worked closely with architects Feilden Clegg Bradley throughout. The finished building has mirrored façades and timber cladding to reflect its setting. Limiting disruption to visitors as well as the project’s construction-phase environmental and carbon footprint were key considerations: roof beams were manufactured off site and soil material removed during construction was redistributed on site for landscaping. The roof’s timber structure was selected to allow a degree of humidity buffering, contributing to a stable environment for the display of the museum’s collections.

Both Y Gweithdy and the site’s main building are served by rainwater harvesting systems. Environmental conditions in the main exhibition space are maintained by an air source heat pump system, while the museum’s existing onsite solar photovoltaic generation has been reintegrated with the building and a new combined heat and power system installed. Both buildings have secured the targeted BREEAM Excellent and EPC A rating that formed part of the original project brief.


RICS Wales Tourism and Leisure Award 2018
RSAW Conservation Award 2019, RSAW Building of the Year Award 2019, RSAW Welsh Architecture Award 2019
Museum of the Year Award 2019