It’s coming up to the last week of Cambridge term, and my third-year Roman Britain class has been enjoying the end-of-course field trips. De-mob happy, last week we all went off in a coach to the Castle Museum in Colchester; this Saturday it was a train to the Museum of London.
First stop in London was actually the amphitheatre of the Roman city, partly preserved down in the basement under the Guildhall Art Gallery. Opened to the public in 1999, this gallery houses the Corporation of London’s art collection -- including some amazing Victorian stuff, from a clutch of A-list pre-Raphaelites to some of my favourite bits of nineteenth-century Hellenism (Lord Leighton, Alma-Tadema, Poynter and co).
The whole set up is pretty strange. There’s an airport style security system when you go in -- ever since some free-thinker came along with a cricket bat and took a swipe at the head of their statue of Margaret Thatcher. I don’t know if that puts the hordes off (and maybe the place is swarming with city-workers during the week), but on the three occasions I’ve visited on a Saturday, it has been deserted. In fact it gives the distinct impression that its main function is to provide overspill cloakroom and loo space for the VIPs from the Guildhall next door – and that the paintings etc are really just the background decoration.
There is actually a little spy-hole down into what is left of the amphitheatre from just outside the palatial made-for-royalty loos. And it does look wonderful – with a green laser effect to reconstruct the seating, plus some green laser spectators and fighters.
But if you actually make your way to the basement, you’re in for a surprise. It turns out that the only visible remains of the Roman amphitheatre are paltry in the extreme. That green laser lighting you can see from above is most of what is there (plus some artificial crowd roar activated when you move to one end).
Actually I rather like the spectacle – even if there is a strong whiff of corporate entertainment about it all. The reason for taking the students is not just to rub their noses in the remaining rubble walls, but to get them to think about the presentation, and to see what you can do with a few yards of Roman masonry if you have the cash.
After lunch, it was on to the Museum of London itself. Again we were looking at the strategies of display as well as the objects themselves. It’s a great place for getting the students to observe changing fashions in museology. The Roman gallery was designed in 1996 – and you can usefully compare it to the Prehistoric Gallery (finished three years ago) and the Medieval Gallery (just last year). Amongst the obvious changes over this period, the amount of writing in the galleries goes down, while the number of computer and plasma screens goes up. Actually I rather like the look of the Prehistoric Gallery, which manages, by a judicious ‘hang’ and some clever lighting, to turn its dozens of look-alike flint axes into a veritable work of art. (Though, as Jenny Hall, the Roman curator explained, I had missed the point of the blue background in the case – it is supposed to evoke the Thames!)
Top of the agenda for the students were the information panels and labels. It’s easy to be sniffy about them and their over-simplifications – but one of their tasks in our class next week is going to be to try their hand themselves. Convey some useful information on gladiators/Boudica/the Roman empire in a maximum of 60 words, aimed at those with a reading age of 12.
All in all, I came away with a very warm glow towards all those involved, and their good will. Not just the Cambridge teachers, there was a museum curator who gave up a large chunk of her Saturday to talk to us, for free. And a group of students who not only took the trouble to get themselves to London, but had streams of just the kind of questions and comments that would make any of their mentors proud – or at least proved that their brains had been switched on during the earlier part of term. They were still going strong when I left them to it at 4.00.
(Oh – if anyone is still wondering about the cost of those cases, think five figures rather than four for a big one.)