Sunday, 12 May 2013

York - Roman baths and contemporary art with an archaeological twist

While on a trip to York yesterday (to celebrate my mum's birthday no less), I managed as always to get some heritage sightseeing in.

The first place was the Roman Baths museum, underneath a pub of the same name. I've been to York more times than I could possibly count, and have known about the existence of the Roman remains under this pub for many years but for some reason never gone in. I think it's because I'd always assumed it was a case of a few low walls and the odd bit of hypocaust in a bar amid the daytime drinkers, who you'd have to move aside to be able to see anything. Happily, I discovered that the remains are actually separate from the pub, in a little independent museum in the basement.

The museum consists of the remains of the baths (mainly the semicircular outline of the caldarium with numerous pilae) and a variety of scattered displays about the Roman army and some ceramic finds from the baths. Without wishing to be unkind, the museum displays are rather disjointed and not put together with a high budget or any great overarching interpretational strategy, however it is clearly a labour of love and deserves praise for that alone.

The panels attempt to put the bath's remains into the topographical context of Eboracum, and also into the wider social system of Roman bathing. Some elements of the display are rather incongruous though. Although admittedly a legionary bathhouse, this is taken to extremes in the amount of display taken over with replica military equipment - there are no less than five complete suits of lorica segmentata in the museum! Granted, the ability to try some on will definitely go down well with many visitors though.

A bit of the display also inexplicably refers to the worship of Mithras, which I'm pretty sure has no connection to the baths as the known Mithraeum in York is on Micklegate. The label was too far away for me to read though, so I might be mistaken...

Although again I'm not entirely sure why it was relevant to the remains, the little mock shrine (complete with 30p votive candles) was cute.  The Goddess the shrine was dedicated to was interesting though.  Named as 'Uberitas, Goddess of Plenty', I confess this is a deity I've never heard of.  Surely Ops, Pomona or Abundantia would be better Goddesses of plenty and abundance?  I'd be delighted to hear if anyone can enlighten me!

My second cultural adventure of the day was at St Mary's Church - a lovely venue now successfully used as a contemporary art gallery. Their new exhibition is called 'The Matter of Life and Death', and consists of ceramics created by artist Julian Stair alongside archaeological ceramics from the Yorkshire Museum collections. The overall theme is of death, and in particular the containers that people's earthly remains have been placed in, from the Bronze Age, Roman, Anglo Saxon and Medieval periods as well as ancient Egypt juxtaposed with Stair's own modern ceramics.

The exhibition is of particular interest to me as my own museum has recently had a contemporary art exhibition which has involved archaeological objects from the collections I curate.

Of course, my interest is in the historic objects more than the contemporary ones, but Stair's ceramics were of good quality, interesting form and juxtaposed well with the archaeological material, all of which was cleanly displayed and wonderfully not behind glass.  It was a risky approach, but one that has paid off as the connection that a visitor can get from an object without 8mm of safety glass in the way is extraordinary.

I was particularly interested to see that a group of Roman cremation urns still had cremated remains within them.  During our aforementioned exhibition in Lincoln, one visitor commented that they felt it was disrespectful for us to display cremated human remains as they are in storage - in sealed plastic tubs.  I would be very interested to know, in all seriousness, if that same visitor felt that displaying them within the urns they were discovered in increased the respectfulness - bearing in mind that they were on open display, and could have been touched (and, heaven forbid, even had bits removed) had a nefarious visitor so wished.

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