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What a World! exhibition at Penrhyn Castle

Close-up of a glass dome containing brightly coloured stuffed birds, native to Africa in the collection at Penrhyn Castle, Wales
Taxidermy birds in a glass dome in the Ebony Room at Penrhyn Castle | © Steve Peake

Between 2019 and 2022, the 'What a World!' exhibition could be found at Penrhyn Castle. It took a look at pieces in the collection linked to our colonial past, the transatlantic slave trade and the culture of colonialism and shared the creative responses of local schoolchildren.

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A look back at 'What a World!'

Take a tour of the What a World! exhibition and experience some of Penrhyn Castle’s story as told through the building, paintings and objects we care for. The collection tells of histories far beyond the castle walls; including those of the people and places who paid for the construction and furnishing of Penrhyn’s estate.

The making of What a World! at Penrhyn Castle

To create What a World!, we worked with Shaza, Fatimah, Leon, Adam, Abhay, Victoria, Julia, Alice, Khalid, and Zahraa from Our Lady’s Primary School in Bangor. They chose 9 objects and paintings, in order to explore the castle's links to colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.

At the same time, staff and volunteers worked in the archives to expand our understanding of Penrhyn’s connections to enslaved people on Jamaican sugar plantations.

Watch the video here and discover how the children felt during their time exploring the history of the castle.

Visitors exploring the 'What a World!' exhibition at Penrhyn Castle and Garden, Gwynedd, North Wales
Visitors exploring the 'What a World!' exhibition at Penrhyn Castle | © National Trust Images/Annapurna Mellor

Working with poets

Through this project, the children and the Castle team worked with historians and with poets Martin Daws and Aneirin Karadog. Responding creatively allowed us to interact and think about the collection and our global histories in a different way.

Time to reflect

Reflecting on the exhibition and the process we went through to make it, Leon told us:

'It’s important to talk about these objects because it’s everybody’s history. It’s dark, unpleasant and brutal. Take the Bird Dome, they’ve taken something beautiful and treated it as if it was not living, as if it was property. This castle is beautiful, these objects are beautiful, but they come from cruelty, some of them come from cruelty to enslaved African people.'

Building a better future

'Writing these poems has made me reflect and think back on the story of Penrhyn. I’m not a very emotional person to tell the truth but it is important to think about our past and other people’s past, why does this castle exist?'

'We need to look at the beauty of the past but also recognise our mistakes and build a better future. Why make the same mistakes again?'

Meet the What a world! objects

A short account of the African slave trade', a book by Robert Norris at Penrhyn Castle
A short account of the African slave trade', a book by Robert Norris at Penrhyn Castle | © Steve Peake

'A short account of the African slave trade' by Robert Norris

Robert Norris was a slave trader. He wrote this book in defence of the slave trade. Of the captive Africans transported over the Atlantic, he said: “The voyage from Africa to the West Indies was one of the happiest periods of [their] life.” Inside the book, he wrote ‘By Desire of the Author’. This suggests that Norris gave it to Richard Pennant, Lord Penrhyn, as a gift from one anti-abolition campaigner to another.

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Bangor University Archives

The papers relating to their Jamaican estates are held at Bangor University Archives. To find out more, follow this link to their webpage.

Visitor looking at the mountains of Snowdonia from Penrhyn Castle's garden at sunset

Discover more at Penrhyn Castle and Garden

Find out when Penrhyn Castle and Garden is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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