Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Roman Museum Canterbury

Too bad the Roman Museum in Canterbury is set back from the road. This fabulous resource needs to be more visible to kids, grown-ups, families and tourists.

The Museum came into existence thanks to the notorious Baedeker Bombers of World War II. These were Germans flyers who used the Baedeker Guide Book to inspire their hit list. By some miracle they missed the world-famous Cathedral that was the goal of so many pilgrims from the time of Thomas à Becket onwards. Instead, they devastated the surrounding area. But in so doing they exposed the remains of a Romano-British Villa with impressive mosaics and hypocausts.

I was invited to Canterbury by Ray Laurence, a professor of Classics at the University of Kent. He is famous for his animated TED talk on Roman teenagers. He is also passionate about the Museums of Canterbury and wanted to show me what was special about them. During a packed day, I visited this museum, the fabulously quirky Beaney Museum and watched Paul Burnett dig an Iron Age Site. I also had lunch with enthusiastic members of the Classics faculty.

Because of my interest in all things Roman, we went to the Roman Museum first. A colourful mosaic (above) welcomes you in and a suitably imposing looking Roman soldier encourages you to "Descend through two millennia of Canterbury's history" to Durovernum Cantiacorum. Apparently, each step down represents 100 years' worth of archaeological layers finally ending with the 300 AD layer. This is already a great lesson for kids that when you go down into the earth, you are almost always going back in time!

Where once you saw the back of a museum clerk beavering away at accounts, you now see a horse and cavalry rider, which is much more exciting. In fact for a while it was too exciting. This entry area used to be so dimly that the looming figure scared younger children, so they have bumped up the lights enough to show that horse and rider have "been in the wars". For those little kids who are easily scared, there is a mouse (reminiscent of Minimus from the Latin course) to show the way. (right)

This is my kind of museum. In other words, good for someone with a short attention span. A choice selection of real finds are protected by glass but many of the authentic replicas are touchable. Mannequins show what Canterbury's Roman market might have looked like, with suitable artefacts nearby.

A useful touchscreen computer (kids love these) tells us that although we know where the Temple was, we don't have a clue which god or goddess was worshipped there! Was it dea nutrix, the goddess who suckles two babes at the breast? Excavators found more than one of these little votive figures in Canterbury. They come from Gaul (France) and that is also where we find other examples of a temple right next to a theatre and with a water trough attached. Maybe a young visitor to the museum will grow up to be the historian who solves this mystery! In the meantime, here is an informative audio clip of Prof. Laurence talking about dea nutrix figurines.

Interactive is the key word here at Canterbury's Roman Museum. In one of the first rooms I found a couple of grown-ups playing a Roman board game (below). They were definitely not posed (though by this time Ray and I had been joined by Allison Coles from the University of Kent and a reporter from the Canterbury news.) I could overhear some more interactivity drifting in from a room up ahead: "Put down that sword, Max! Put it down. Let someone else have a go..." It was only a replica of the wooden rudis given to a freed gladiator. The interactive room has some brilliant tasks for kids. In addition to dress-up, there are colourful plastic trays with real artefacts, shapes to place them and information about them. There are some great replica artefacts, including bronze strigil, wood wax tablet and a sponge-stick! Children are encouraged to handle these and guess their function.

Other highlights of the Museum include:

a digital reconstruction of a Roman town house
cavalry horse-harness fittings (look behind the model horse)
rare tools: a spade, carpenter's square and mason's trowel
mosaics and hypocausts in situ
roof tiles with the paw prints of a Roman dog
painted fragments of frescoed walls
finds from Canterbury's Roman baths including gaming counters (or were these bottom wipers?)
votive figurines, including a horse goddess and the dea nutrix
a silver treasure with Christian symbolism
glass vessels, some with cremated remains inside

One of the best interactive features was a magnetic mosaic wall. This could have been cheesy, but it's great. The pattern and tesserae are authentic-looking. It's both clever and fun. Kudos to whoever thought this up. (Or borrowed the idea!) 

It is not until you reach the end of the museum that you see the original remains of the Roman villa and learn about how the German bombing brought this site and museum to light. You realise that the museum is situated exaclty where the Roman villa and bath house stood. Those who are keen to learn more can read the old newspaper accounts and even see photographs of the Sheppard Frere and the other archaeologists who dug in the early 1950's, but this is an optional bonus for budding aficionados, and cleverly placed at the end not the beginning.

The Roman Museum was due to close in 2009, but was saved by the simple argument that Canterbury is remarkable not just for its cathedral and archbishop, nor for having the oldest parish church and oldest school in the UK, but also for its Roman past. The case was put by my new friends Dr Paul Bennett, Director of Canterbury Archaeological Trust, and also Prof. Laurence. Thankfully the council listened to them, and invested. The result is a delightfully vibrant gem of a museum, one that deserves to be visited by adults and children alike.

P.S. To see more pictures from this museum and the Beaney House of Art & Knowledge, go to my Pinterest page.

P.P.S. In a recent Canterbury Times article, Professor Laurence shares some tips on how to help kids get the most out of a museum visit. 

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