Friday, 11 July 2014

A trip to Coventry - 'Roman Empire: Power and People'

The latest British Museum touring exhibition doing the rounds is currently residing at the Herbert in Coventry, and having failed to make it down to Norwich to see it at its previous venue, I was very pleased to be able to head across this evening to not only look around the exhibition, but also attend a very good lecture on Roman numismatics, of which more later.

I have to start with a tiny grumble, though not one that the Herbert has any control over.  Its something that afflicts every BM touring exhibition - a ban on gallery photography.  I get why some exhibitions have copyright problems, but the archaeology in this show doesn't suffer from this hindrance.  Likewise, some material is susceptible to light damage, but only allowing non-flash photography is now standard in most institutions.  There are no photographic restrictions when the objects are on display in the BM or in their local galleries, so why the change in policy when they are part of a formal exhibition like this?  It feels like such a backward step when we should be encouraging people to share their gallery experiences and promote the subject in the process.

But enough with the grumbles as the exhibition is very good, and strikes a lovely balance between BM material (British and international in nature) and local material.  This is a nice parallel with the study of Roman archaeology in general, which can vary hugely in scale between the truly classical and international and the incredibly local picture encountered in the different parts of Roman Britain.  A particularly nice example of this was the film of the Herbert's archaeology curator, Paul Thompson, teleporting around the Midlands to talk about local sites, which I really enjoyed.

Some of the objects on show are wonderful, and the selection for a touring show is adventurous.  Items like the gilded bronze Hercules from Birdoswald, the stone carving of Horus in armour, the flourite 'Crawford Cup', and the variety of fine marble tomb monuments and altars are objects of the highest quality and benefit from the detailed attention they are given.  Also to be lauded is the decision to place so many of them on open display.  The lack of a pane of glass between viewer and object, as we all know, enhances the experience immensely.

On a more local level, it was an unexpected thrill to see items such as the Mars rider figurine from Norton Disney and a votive plaque with Vulcan from the famous Barkway hoard - both items I only knew from photographs and had not expected to come face to face with during my visit.  I was also very happy to see the coins and pot from the Selby coin hoard, which I have previously blogged about because of the funky science used to examine it.

One area where photography was allowed was a neat section where visitors can step into a Roman coin and become the Imperial portrait of Constantius Chlorus, father of Constantine the Great.

The second element of the trip was a very enjoyable evening lecture by Dr Clare Rowan of Warwick University.  Her topic was 'Coinage and Communication in the Roman Empire', which she tackled with palpable enthusiasm, keeping a good balance between the development of Roman coinage and its myriad imagery and social contexts.  Her blog on Roman numismatics can be seen here, and is well worth checking out.

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