When we think of the Roman Empire, we think of great emperors, warriors and perhaps its incredible architecture. Yet many of us will come to realise that our knowledge is actually quite limited. For those of us with European ancestry, we are bound to have ‘Roman’ blood and the Roman Empire: Power & People exhibition at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery made this very clear; it thus included the viewer in a personal way.
The Roman Empire was a long period, so it is a challenge in itself to exhibit a exhaustive body of Roman art. The other challenge lies in conservation – not all that much stuff remains! Having visited Rome’s fantastic architecture for myself, I went into the exhibition believing that this trip could never amount to seeing the works in the flesh.
As I first entered the exhibition, I was taken aback by the space; a small, ‘cosy’ room structured with coloured panels and blown up images of artworks. I was expecting something similar to a traditional gallery, with a high ceiling and open space with item after item on display. I found the use of space to be highly effective; the gallery was spilt into different sections, beginning with perhaps what we are most familiar with – the topic of ‘power’. A way of presenting power was put forward by coinage (a strong aspect of the exhibition overall), pieces of architectural sculpture and a small collection of paintings.
Fitting in nicely with the modern aspect of the brightly coloured walls was the interactive, hugely popular animated map, which attracted a lot of attention. One can experience ‘power’ for themselves by playing ‘Romanopoly’, a chance game with a fun element of history, suitable for all ages. The map showed the development of the Roman Empire from the city of Rome, to its heights where most of Europe, North Africa and the east were within its realms, coming to an end with the empire’s contraction. The visitor comments made me realise how little people knew about the empire’s borders and its sheer power. Though I thought I already knew much about what was presented, I was able to put things into perspective. This map was a very pleasant alternative to the traditional timeline.
The second section of the exhibition was mainly based on ‘people’. I found this section more interesting as I believe that as a modern community, we know little about our ancestors’ everyday life. It acknowledged the influence that the Roman Empire had on the rest of the world as well as highlighting aspects that that are still around today. A cleverly placed image of Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’ was put alongside other things such as ‘Asterix and Obelix’, highlighting the empire’s contribution to popular culture and the way we are still interacting with it almost 2000 years later. The final section is an area dressed like a mausoleum, displaying items relating to the Roman dead. Within this mausoleum lay my favourite item of the museum: a magnificent mummy portrait of a Roman woman.
One of the best things about this exhibition is without a doubt its accessibility. Whether you are young or old, a History student or completely in the dark when it comes to Ye Olden Times, you are bound to enjoy this exhibition. The way the text in each section has been formulated allows those who want to know a little (but do not want to read a lot!) to get a feel for the works and the period, but equally enables those who are keen to know more to read on. Though this exhibition did not quite amount to seeing real Roman architecture, it did give a feel and a flavour for the culture and the significance of the Roman Empire. Sometimes in large exhibitions, the extent of visual information can feel overwhelming and the Bristol Museum understands this. As opposed to putting too much on show, they just gave you a taster, to leave you hungry for more.
The exhibition is running in Bristol from 21st September 2013 – 12th January 2014. Tickets are £4 for students. Why not do something different in your lunch hour and make time for a quick trip to this exhibition – you won’t be disappointed!