Date published 1/7/2020

Hans Christian:

Chesterholm Museum ("Vindolanda") and Roman Army Museum - are not only an archaeological sites of the greatest importance, nationally and internationally. They are also excellent examples of a particular kind of independent museum, dedicated to finds coming out of the ground they are built on, using the best practices archaeologically and curatorially. And they have their own "soul" as attractions, built on a long continuous tradition of caring for the land and the finds, and for the people who visit.

And I discovered it quite early, when I first moved to Newcastle upon Tyne in 1982. I drove out to Vindolanda for the first time in the spring of 1983 (shortly before the MOT-man condemned my rusty Triumph Toledo to destruction), when the Trust was still quite young as a trust. Becoming a museums trustee was not the fulfillment of a forty-year "ambition", after I first ventured into Northumberland and found this ruined Roman auxiliary fort. But I have got a sense of having come full circle and having come home, in a sense.

I have chosen five aspects of the Trust which have struck me and interested me as I have moved around the sites and the buildings. I hope you enjoy sharing them with me.

Vindolanda and Magna help me put things into perspective, in time and space. For more than two thousand years, probably many more, there has been human activity on those sites. For nearly three hundred of those, the Romans built their forts there. For more than two hundred years, Vindolanda has been dug by archaeologists, since the Rev. Anthony Hedley first started real archaeology on the site, in 1814. And for fifty years, Robin (1935-2018) and Patricia Birley have led work on the site. Here you see them in the café at Vindolanda a couple of years ago. If you look carefully, you also see their portraits in the large painting on the wall to the left in the picture. The painting? Vindolanda is many things, also a place of humour. Where else do they inspire you to enjoy your locally-made pie and cup of tea with a large picture of a Roman orgy. Orgy? Well, big dinner, at the very least.

 

Chesterholm Museum’s many treasures come from the multiple Vindolanda forts, dug out of the ground by professional archaeologists and thousands of volunteers, who have helped dig at Vindolanda over the decades. Here you see two of the them at work deep in the ground, with spades and shovels. Once you are near finds, trowels, spoons, brushes, fingertips come into use. Some finds are very delicate. Vindolanda has thousands of Roman shoes in its stores – and many fine examples on display in the museum. Each was prized, carefully, from the wet soil by enthusiasts who want not just to study history and see historical artefacts behind glass in museums. At Vindolanda, volunteers help uncover the past. So many people, of all ages, have knelt down below the turf line, their faces close to the cool, damp soil, wondering whether today is the day when they find something last seen and handled by a Vindolanda inhabitant more than a thousand years ago. Perhaps even more often they have stood bent under the hot Northumberland sun, sifting through buckets of soil for finds before moving wheelbarrows of soil to the spoil heap. Archaeology has many and varied charms.

Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum are visitor attractions: they are organised so that visiting them is an exciting and pleasant experience. The curator and the designers look after the excitement, the front of house staff make the visit pleasant. These three staff members at the Roman Army Museum won a VisitEngland Welcome Award in 2020 for their excellent visitor service. Without them (and catering, cleaning and sales staff, groundsmen (-women) and the stonemason, administrators, marketing and management), there would be no museums in the modern sense. A visit to a modern museum is a total experience, visitors have expectations from the first visit to the museum homepage, to when they wave good-bye to the staff at the front entrance of the museum. All staff make not just a contribution to the experience of visiting at Vindolanda and Roman Army Museum: they make a difference.

There are many sensations at the two museums, some small, some large. Vindolanda is famous for its Roman letters – they are small. This one is a bit larger: a genuine Roman toilet seat. In my childhood, my grandparents did not believe in heating in the toilets but they did believe in fresh air. Using their toilet in mid-winter, as ice-cold very fresh air streamed in through always open windows, meant resting your warm person against some of the coldest toilet-seat plastic you can imagine. With that in mind, I have often looked at surviving Roman toilet seats made of stone and wondered how desperate Roman soldiers – and the Commanding Officer’s elegant wife – had to be before surrendering to the body’s cry for relief and going to sit on those cold stone seats. When this wooden one was discovered, my first thought was: “they must have had those everywhere!” The experts do not agree but I still wonder.

The small black things held in the hands of this figure are huge sensations: even rarer than a Roman toilet seat, these are Roman boxing gloves. Look at the wonderful way they have been displayed. Behind the figure is a much more conventional (but useful, clear and informative) display of Roman keys and locks. For the boxing gloves, the museum’s curatorial staff at Vindolanda had to find a way of displaying these sensational things so that they are prominent: they are in a glass case in the middle of one of the galleries. But they are cleverly displayed on a rudimentary “human” figure, so that you can “see through” the display: the case does not dominate unduly. And the display figure itself seems to be not only damaged – “hurt” – but it is also made of plaster cast bandaging, humorously suggesting the kind of damage Roman boxing gloves could make in the hands of the right person. On the hands of the right person, of course.

 

Modern museums are not boring, there is something happening everywhere. The most interesting things happen in your own imagination as you visit.