Monday, 23 September 2013

Nemi at Nottingham Castle

This weekend, I finally managed to make the short trip across to Nottingham to see 'The Treasure of Nemi' exhibition at Nottingham Castle Museum before it closes.  Its scary just how quickly exhibitions fly past, and before you know it they're in their final week and you still haven't been!

The subject material is wonderful, and a great idea for an exhibition.  The sanctuary of the goddess Diana at Lake Nemi, southeast of Rome, is a very famous archaeological site and was a renowned shrine through its long life between the 5th Century BC and the 2nd Century AD.

Ovid, in his 'Fasti' (his partially surviving tour through the religious festivals of the Roman calendar), mentions Nemi for the month of March:

"Teach me, nymph, servant of Diana's grove and pool;
Come, nymph, Numa's wife, witness your deeds.
In Aricia's valley, circled by a shady wood 
Is a lake, hallowed by an ancient cult.
Here Hippolytus hides, unfleshed by horses' reins;
Hence no horses may enter the grove.
The long hedgerows are covered with hanging threads;
Many placards give thanks to the goddess.
Often a woman is granted her prayer, wreathes her brow
And bears shimmering torches from the city.
The grove is ruled by runaways with strong hands and feet,
Who later perish by their own example.
A pebbly rivulet spills down with shifting sounds:
I have often drunk from there in small sips.
Egeria supplies the water, the Camenae's
Darling goddess, Numa's wife and council.
At first the Quirites were too eager for war;
Numa tamed them with law and fear of gods.
Laws were made to cabin the power of the strong,
And ancient rites were observed exactly.
Barbarism is peeled off, justice surpasses arms,
And civil violence becomes shameful.
An altar's sight induces recent brutes to offer
Wine and salted spelt on glowing hearths."

One of the most fascinating (and downright mad) elements of the Nemi site is the priest that presided over it.  Known as the 'Rex Nemorensis' ('King of the Grove'), the priest was a runaway slave who held his position until another runaway slave took a bough from a tree at the site and killed him!  Suffice it to say, this was not normal procedure for Roman priesthood succession planning!

The site was excavated in 1885 by Lord Savile, then British Minister in Rome.  He had an agreement with Prince Orsini, the landowner, that they would share the finds 50-50.  Thankfully, though Orsini let his collection be scattered, Savile donated his collection to Nottingham Castle on his return to England.

So, what was the exhibition like? Overall, it has to be said that the quality of the collection makes it a success, though there are certain little things that jarred me while I was looking round, and I need to get them off my chest first before telling you what I really liked!

Firstly, I actually had trouble finding the exhibition within the museum and found myself wandering a bit randomly through various galleries trying to find generic 'temporary exhibition' signage. It would have been nice to have had some bespoke signage throughout the museum to help locate the galleries and promote the existence of the exhibition.  When I eventually found the galleries, I entered by one of a number of entrances, but not one that provided me with an introduction, leaving me wandering through the experience effectively backwards, which wasn't critical but was a little frustrating.

The exhibition was neat and tidy but felt a little staid and old fashioned, an opinion also shared by the two people I visited with.  For example the rooms seemed to me to be begging for some large scale vinyls of the beautiful lake setting to transport visitors into the environment and inject some vibrancy and colour.  A sense of place was lacking from the interpretation in general, as although certain panels did discuss the setting of the shrine perfectly adequately, it wasn't particularly brought to life.  This seemed a shame when the location of the shrine is one of its most appealing and significant aspects.

Image from
Linked to this previous comment, and perhaps reflecting the budgeting realities of modern museums, was the interpretation for the display cases of votive offerings.  I really loved how the offerings had been arranged in chronological groupings to demonstrate the changing nature of the offerings over time, and the displays themselves were attractive and eye-catching, but why oh why did they decide to use laminated sheets of A4 for the interpretation?  I don't have a problem with using a numbering system to avoid cluttering an attractive and object-rich display with text-heavy labels, but to use laminated sheets (tearing apart at the edges) seems cheap to me and isn't worthy of the quality of the objects.  This was compounded by the fact that there was only one set of interpretation for each display case, and the text often ran over multiple sheets, sometimes cutting halfway through a single object's interpretation.  I'm afraid it lets down the quality of the display immensely.  Oh, and some of the sheets had even become mixed up between display cases as they weren't graphically distinguished in any way.  Grrr...

With those gripes out of the way, let me get on with telling you what I liked, because overall, as I said at the outset, the quality of the material is wonderful and the interpretation is very good.  Nottingham Castle is extremely fortunate to have such a collection from this wonderful site and its great to see it being placed in the spotlight.

I always find votive objects fascinating, and the collection on show is second to none.  The fact that there are so many from the same site makes them especially interesting, and means that changes in fashions can be traced through time.  A whole range of anatomical models (hands, feet, pregnant women etc); full and partial statuettes of animals, deities (namely Diana and Minerva); busts of unidentified people in both bronze and terracotta and miniature versions of various pots and jars are all on display, and I spent a long time peering into the neat displays looking at the tiny details - absolutely wonderful!

The use of 'broken' columns as display cases in the centre of one room was a neat touch, as were the mirrors at the bottom of them, no doubt a device designed to carry the idea of the mirror-like qualities of the lake, sometimes known as 'speculum Dianae' - the mirror of Diana.  It was also nice to see a variety of architectural material on wall-mounted open display.  The mounting was well done and the arrangement attractive.

The 'Fundilia Room' was arranged to represent a single room at the shrine, built around 50BC and partially excavated by Savile.  The objects in this room, including images of objects now in Copenhagen, provide the personal touch to the displays, containing as they do the names and faces of people involved with patronising and worshipping at the shrine.  This includes the fabulous herm of Fundilia Rufa, who has become the 'face' of the exhibition, and the character through which the social media was focussed.  The quality of the objects is wonderful and the arrangement a great success.  I confess I got very much caught up moving from object to object and revealing the details of people who had had such personal involvement in the site.  The contemporary video presentation fitted the content well, and the large tree for people to add their own votive wishes was very sweet.

At this point, I should certainly make mention of the website and blog which were created around the exhibition.  The website provides a background to the site and finds and the excellent blog has articles from museum staff and wider university experts which explore a variety of issues about the shrine, the archaeological questions it raises and the project to digitise and 3D scan the collections.  I hope the blog in particular remains live for a long time to come, as the article archive they have created is first rate, and has some stimulating content.  Ironically, the online content provides some of the imagery and sense of place that I felt was lacking in the exhibition itself.  You should definitely check them out!

As a final touch, I very much liked that the gardens which surround the museum building had had one of the flowerbeds specially turned into a representation of one of the terracotta male heads from the site.  Oh to be able to go back in time and tell the original depositor what his offering would one day be turned into!

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