Museums in London: Visitors in 2020

The Great Court at the British Museum © David Gill

The publication of the ALVA visitor figures for museums in London demonstrates the impact of COVID restrictions. A selection of 11 museums in London received over 36.6 million visitors in 2019, reduced to 8.2 million in 2020. This represents lost income that will need to be addressed by the sector.

© David Gill, 2021

The Parthenon marbles: paving “the path for modern democracy”

The Parthenon frieze © David Gill

As part of the bicentenary of the Greek War of Independence draws near, two US members of Congress have passed a resolution calling on the UK Government to return the architectural sculptures from the Parthenon to Greece (“Hellenic Caucus Co-Chairs Maloney & Bilirakis Reintroduce Resolution Calling on the U.K. to Return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece“, 18 March 2021).

Congressman Gus Bilirakis said:

“The Parthenon Marbles were made by the citizens of Athens under the direction of renowned artist Phidias to celebrate the pride and majesty of the City of Athens. To not house and view these citizen contributions in the city they were originally intended does a disservice not only to the people of Athens, but also to the civilization that paved the path for modern democracy and freedom.”

The appeal to the original intention of the sculptor is a strong one. These sculptures were an integral part of a building, incidentally now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Athenian Akropolis.

Is now the time for these sculptures to be returned to Athens so that they can be displayed in line of sight of the Parthenon?

Renewed debate over cultural property

Architectural sculpture from the Parthenon currently in the British Museum © David Gill

The British Prime Minister has stepped into the debate about cultural property currently held in the British Museum by making a statement about what he considers to be the legal status of the Parthenon architectural sculptures (“Greek culture minister challenges British PM’s claims on Parthenon sculptures“, ekatherimini.com 12 March 2021). These sculptures were once an integral part of the Parthenon, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Athenian Acropolis. The proposal is to display them in line of sight with the Parthenon.

Some of the issues relating to cultural property are explored in my Context Matters: Collating the Past (20202) [see here].

The New Acropolis Museum and the Theatre of Dionysos from the Athenian Acropolis © David Gill

The severed portrait head from the Alde

Portrait of the Emperor Claudius (British Museum) © David Gill

The bronze head of the Emperor Claudius (or perhaps Nero) was found in the spring of 1907 in the River Alde at Rendham, west of Saxmundham, in Suffolk. As Jocelyn Toynbee observed: ‘The lower line of the neck is torn and ragged, and there can be little doubt but that this head was violently hacked from its body and carried off as loot from some important Roman centre’. The suggestion is that it was removed from the Roman colony at Colchester: see Janet Huskinson, CSIR GB I, 8, no. 23.

The head (‘The Saxmundham Claudius’) was purchased by the British Museum after it had been sold at Sotheby’s in 1965 (inv. 1965.12-01.1).

The West Row Roman Treasure from Suffolk

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Mildenhall Dish © David Gill

A suggestion has been made that the Mildenhall Treasure be renamed as the West Row Treasure after the parish in which it was found (“Mildenhall Treasure: British Museum steps in to row over Roman hoard”, BBC News 22 February 2020).

Troy at the British Museum

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Troy: Myth and Reality © David Gill

The Troy: Myth and Reality exhibition at the British Museum has just opened in Gallery 30. The beautifully designed exhibition takes the visitor from the Skaian Gate at Troy through to the installation of the Shield of Achilles.

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‘The Death of Hector, King Priam and the Skaian Gate’, Anthony Caro, 1993–94. Photo: David Gill

The narrative of the Trojan War was supported by a range of objects, underpinned with figure-decorated pottery from the museum’s extensive collection. One of the first pieces on display is the Geometric ‘Nestor’s cup’ from Pithekoussai (‘I am the cup of Nestor, good to drink from’).

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Skyphos from Pithekoussai © David Gill

There is a section on the excavations at Troy, and another one on the documentary evidence. The final section is on the reception of Troy, and includes a poem written by a British officer at Gallipoli in his copy of The Shropshire Lad. 

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Troy: Myth and Reality © David Gill

The exhibition contained two late 15th century Italian panels by Biagio d’Antonio (on loan from the Fitzwilliam Museum) showing the Death of Hector and the Wooden Horse entering the city.

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The Siege of Troy, Biagio d’Antonio. Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum. Photo: David Gill

Schliemann’s part in the uncovering of Troy was explored a space that displayed some of the finds from the excavations against a backdrop of the great trench.

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Troy: Myth and Reality © David Gill

What were the personal highlights in the exhibition? The Roman silver kantharoi from Hoby in Denmark were stunning pieces of luxury art. The representation of Priam seeking the return of Hektor’s body before Achilles on one of them was moving.

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Kantharos from Hoby. Denmark, Nationalmuseet. Photo: David Gill

The real surprise was the Roman sarcophagus from Ephesus that now forms part of the collection at Woburn Abbey. This scene shows the weighing of Hektor’s body.

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Sarcophagus from Ephesus. Woburn Abbey. Photo: David Gill

This is one of the best temporary exhibitions to be mounted in Room 30. The design and installation of the exhibition was inspired, especially the graphics explaining the iconography on Attic figure-decorated pottery.

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Shield of Achilles. Spencer Finch, 2013. Photo: David Gill

Lympne: Praefectus of the British Fleet

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Inscription from Lympne © David Gill

This altar was discovered in April 1852, subsequent to the 1850 excavations of the east gate of the Roman fort at Lympne in Kent (RIB 66). The inscription shows that it was a dedication to the god Neptune, set up by L. Aufidius Pant(h)era who was serving as the praefectus of the British fleet, clas(sis) Brit(annicae).

Pant(h)era, from Umbria, served as prefect in a cavalry unit in Upper Pannonia and is named in a diploma dated to 2 July 133. He probably moved to Britannia subsequent to this date.

It appears that the altar was reused in the later Saxon Shore fort, probably dating to the second half of the third century. The altar was purchased by the British Museum from Charles Roach Smith in 1856 (inv. 1856.07-01.5026).

Legio II at Benwell

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Inscription from Benwell, Hadrian’s Wall © David Gill

A small inscription was found on the north side of the fort at Benwell on Hadrian’s Wall (RIB 1341). It was first recorded in J. Brand’s History and Antiquities of the Town and County of Newcastle upon Tyne (1789). It is now displayed in the British Museum.

The inscription records work of the Legio II Augusta (repeated on the vexillum) based at Caerleon in south Wales. To the left is a goat, and to the right Pegasus, symbols of the legion.

Other building inscriptions of the Legio II Augusta, relating to the 2nd, 4th and 10th cohorts, are known from round Benwell (RIB 1342, 1343, 1344). David Breeze (Handbook, 14th ed., 158) suggests that they come from the line of the wall around Milecastle 7 (just to the west of the fort): ‘their style suggests a late-second-century date, implying that the Wall in this sector required repair at that time’.

Woodchester Roman Villa

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Part of the Woodchester mosaic, British Museum © David Gill

The Woodchester mosaic is first record in Camden’s Britannia (1695). It was partially unearthed in 1772 by Edmund Browne who made drawings of the remains. Samuel Lysons (bap. 1763–d. 1819) [ODNB] made more detailed recordings in 1794 and published a coloured drawing in 1796.

Lysons presented a small fragment of the mosaic to the British Museum in 1808.

Lysons was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1786, and Director of the Society from 1798 to 1809. He also undertook work at Bignor.

The Thruxton mosaic

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Mosaic from Thruxton, British Museum © David Gill

The mosaic from Thruxton in north-west Hampshire was discovered in 1823 and was presented to the British Museum in 1899 [catalogue]. John Lickman’s engraving of the mosaic from the time of the discovery showed that the central roundel contained an image of Bacchus seated on a feline. This was subsequently lost through plough damage.

In the corners of the mosaic were the four seasons. An inscription appears at the top containing a name: Quintus Natalius Natalinus et Bodeni. A further line of text is known from the bottom end of the mosaic although only two letters could be read.

The mosaic appears to come from a villa, and it probably should be dated to the period 250–350.

Further information: Martin Henig & Grahame Soffe, ‘The Thruxton Roman Villa and Its Mosaic Pavement’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 146, 1 (1993), 1-28.