The Roman World in Modern Museums

This month’s post has been written by Karl Goodwin, a third-year PhD student in Classics and Archaeology at the University of Kent.

Early intentions of British museums was not to give people what they openly desired but what they needed; the British Museum for example aimed at civilising the lower classes. The Roman Empire was used to reflect the British Empire and all that is good with it. Wondrous Roman artefacts and remains of innovative Roman architecture were used to showcase how an Empire could improve the world. As a result, museums obtained an explicit political character which the public engaged with.
Modern views on colonial Britain have progressed for the better with museums generally following this trend. Museums still remain politicised entities. However, its displays represent and challenge our knowledge of the past, which in turn impact present day concepts and ideals as the Ivory Bangle Lady demonstrates.

Figure 1: Facial reconstruction of the Ivory Bangle Lady © Yorkshire Museum

In 1901, human remains were excavated in York from a burial context. The remains belonged to a woman and were found alongside jet and ivory bracelets, earrings, beads, pendants, a glass mirror, a blue glass jug, and a rectangular mount of bone with the message ‘Hail, sister, may you live in God’, possibly indicating Christian beliefs. Additionally, recent research by the University of Reading concluded that the Ivory Bangle Lady was a high-status, mixed-raced migrant from North Africa or the Mediterranean region, who lived in Roman York (Eboracum) with North African descent.

Figure 2: Bone Mount, Glass Jug and Jet and Ivory Bracelets © Yorkshire Museum

The Ivory Bangle Lady is presently situated within the Roman York – Meet The People of the Empire exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum. The display explores Eboracum as a cosmopolitan city, displaying six individuals who came to Eboracum from across the Empire.
Presenting the archaeological evidence surrounding the Ivory Bangle Lady within a multicultural and diverse framework challenges popular assumptions. It is a commonly held view that African immigrants in Roman Britain where low status, male and likely to be slaves. Many individuals faced by alternative histories contradicting their own knowledge of the past react in agitated, negative ways. Comments on newspaper articles attest to this-

The fact that a single foreigner may (or may not) have visited Britain in the 4th Century does not make Britain a historically multiracial society or undermine the status of the indigenous population of these islands. It certainly does not justify the attempts by York Museum to seek to misrepresent history with that ludicrous picture of a multicultural society, which did NOT exist.

(Sarah Davies, 2010)

The Roman Empire was multi-racial but not multi-cultural. There was one culture everyone aspired to – Roman. When the Empire started collapsing this belief was lost, and Romans [sic], gradually, even started dressing like the Barbarians.

(Marcus Aurelius Dibbs, 2010)

These comments demonstrate how academic research which museums rely upon, becomes challenged and politicised. In the case of the comments shown above, the commenters disagree with the museum’s aim to steer away from an outdated homogeneous view of Roman Britain; perhaps expressing their want for a homogenous British future. The politicised nature of these comments also stems from the fact people use history to establish identities for themselves. Therefore, historical displays can tap into modern political topics; in this case topics such as immigration, social tensions, diversity and identity. Individuals may therefore explicitly use and twist historical representations through research and exhibitions for their own contemporary agendas; e.g.

How does this left wing clap trap get printed in a national news paper, one good point came out of this article however if we were multicultural once and managed to reverse it we can do it again

(ste, 2010)

Conversely, the view that museums can be left or right wing in the first instance indicates how the ancient past can be explicitly used to represent contemporary political ideals. Consequently, it is both important and interesting to examine who is speaking to us through museum displays and how others interpret, react and use these representations.
It is possible to take part in this process by considering the following questions next time you are within a history museum: Are ancient people speaking to us themselves or are modern voices using ancient pasts to express specific aims? Can an ancient life be pieced back together in a narrative which is unbiased? And how may museums be relating the Roman past to contemporary society? What is the effect of this?