Douglas Bassett: Geologist who became an inspirational Director of the National Museum of Wales
Thursday 03 December 2009
One of the most distinguished Directors of the National Museum of Wales in recent years, Douglas Bassett was by training a geologist and an authority on such matters as the use and conservation of water resources. Among the public bodies which benefited from his expertise were the Welsh Office, the Ordnance Survey and the Nature Conservancy Council, forerunner of the Countryside Council for Wales, which he chaired. He was also a founder member of the National Welsh-American Foundation and its Vice-President between 1996 and 1998.
During the 1960s he was the sole Welsh representative on the Department of the Environment's Water Resources Board at a time when the highly charged question of whether Welsh valleys should be flooded to make reservoirs for English cities added to the complexity of political discourse in Wales. The Board advised the Government on future supplies of water for industrial and domestic purposes, laying down guidelines which are still largely in place.
Born the son of a miner in Llwynhendy, near Llanelli, in industrial Carmarthenshire, where he grew up Welsh-speaking, Doug Bassett was educated at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, taking his first degree in Geology in 1952 and then his doctorate in the same discipline. From 1952 to 1959 he taught in the Geology Department at Glasgow University while at the same time making geological forays into north and mid-Wales, especially in the Bala district in collaboration with Professors Alwyn Williams and Harry Whittington, and his pioneering surveys came to be considered models of their kind. Having joined the National Museum of Wales as Keeper of Geology in 1959, he was appointed to the post of Director in 1977 and remained in it until ill-health forced him to retire in 1985.
His years in Cathays Park, Cardiff, saw a rapid development of the Museum's Geology Department. He encouraged colleagues and students working in Wales to donate their specimen collections and appointed additional staff to develop the Museum as a centre for research, especially in the Natural Sciences. The institution was promoted as an educational establishment of the first rank through his strong support of what was then the Museum Schools Service, and by the mounting of didactic exhibitions. Some of the galleries dating from before the war were replaced by better designed display areas. In 1960 he co-founded the South Wales Group of the Geologists' Association which flourishes to this day. His working-class origins, which he acknowledged with the better part of pride, proved a breath of fresh air in the rather stuffy milieu of the establishmentarian institution and he is remembered there with real affection. He was the first Welsh-speaking Director the Museum had had since receiving its charter in 1907.
Meticulous in his methods, he demonstrated particular skills as a bibliographer and historian of science. In 1961 he published his magisterial study, Bibliography and Index of Geology and Allied Sciences for Wales and the Welsh Borders 1897-1958, which made his name as a geologist. It was followed six years later by A Source-book of Geological, Geomorphological and Soil Maps for Wales and the Welsh Borders 1800-1966, which proved invaluable for town and country planners. Generous in sharing his specialist knowledge with lay people, he made substantial contributions to the Welsh Academy's Encyclopaedia of Wales, published by the University of Wales Press in 2008.
A friend of Iorwerth C. Peate, former Curator of the Welsh Folk Museum, he made it his business to carry out enquiries into that irascible man's personal background, eliciting facts which had eluded his official biographers. For American visitors he produced a series of pamphlets explaining the significance of various places in Wales which had historical associations. This aspect of his interest in the heritage of Wales and its links with the United States was recognised by the Ivorite Award in 2008. He also edited the magazine Nature in Wales (1982-97) and, for the Museums Association, A Manual of Curatorship.
Among the honours to come his way were the Aberconway Medal from the Institute of Geologists and the Silver Medal of the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations, both awarded in 1985. He was made Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Ministry of Culture in Paris in recognition of the National Museum's loan of its important collection of Impressionist paintings, including several Renoirs, for exhibition at various venues in France. He was also an honorary professorial fellow at the University of Wales College of Cardiff (1977-97), a member of the White Robe Order of the Gorsedd of Bards, said to be for the patriotic Welshman the equivalent of the CBE, and honorary resident fellow at the National Museum (from 1986).
His committee skills were exceptionally well-honed and he seemed to revel in the work of the myriad committees of which he was an active member. At the same time he retained an impish sense of humour and enjoyed anecdotes about the great and the good, with whom he often rubbed shoulders. Nor was he averse to recounting episodes from his own career, beginning in Glasgow where, he said, his landlady was so negligent she would line a drawer with greaseproof paper and fill it with enough porridge to feed him and his housemates for a whole term. He never figured out why the food didn't go off and always found it delicious.
Although he was divorced from his wife Menna, whom he had married in 1955, they remained on friendly terms for the rest of his life.
Douglas Anthony Bassett, geologist and Director, National Museum of Wales (1977-86): born Llwynhendy, Carmarthenshire 11 August 1927; married 1955 Menna Roberts (three daughters, marriage dissolved); died Cardiff 8 November 2009.
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