Casa Romana

Yesterday, I attended the opening of a new exhibition at the National Museum of Antiquities here in Leiden. Casa Romana focuses on everyday life inside a townhouse of a wealthy Roman family in the first century AD. The exhibition is arranged in a large space on the first floor that encircles the roofed courtyard that functions as the museum’s impressively large entrance area.

The exhibition itself is compartimentalized and organized in an anti-clockwise fashion (after passing through the entrance doors of this area, you turn right to start your exploration of the exhibition). Each area within the exhibition is dedicated to a particular room or activity, and as you move from the start of the exhibition to the end, you also move from morning to night. The change in the time of day is reflected on the semi-transparent photos that cover the windows to the courtyard, which has a subtle, but noticeable effect.

A display case with an ancient sun dial at the beginning of the exhibition explains that you begin at hora prima, the first hour, when the house is just waking up. This opening area gives a good cross-section of the approach used by the designers: ancient objects are juxtaposed with modern artwork, as well as art, furniture, and clothing from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in particular, when designers were heavily influenced by the Roman artefacts pulled out of the newly discovered ruins of Pompeii. As a result, the exhibition deals not just with everyday life in a wealthy home, but also shows how Roman culture was appropriated and re-used in relatively recent times.

The rest of the exhibition showcases a house altar, Roman clothing (as well as clothing belonging to the French Empire style), a series of displays dedicated to the domina or lady of the house, children, bathing and hygiene, eating and drinking habits, gardens, the kitchen and cooking (with recipes that you can pull from the wall and take home to try for yourself), storage and tools, sex, and finally sleep and the use of artificial light (e.g. oil lamps). At the end of the exhibition, you should have a good idea of what life might have been like in the house of a wealthy Roman family.

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I have pretty strong opinions as far as what I think an archaeological museum should be. To my mind, an archaeological museum should be about archaeology, the discipline that focuses on interpreting the remains of the ancient world. Unfortunately, most archaeological museums mistaken present themselves as being about the past. There’s an important difference: in the latter case, you simply present objects and tell the audience what they’re supposed to ‘reveal’ about the past. The past is a fait accompli that only needs to be uncovered by experts, who then dispense their knowledge to a wider audience.

In my opinion, an archaeological museum should emphasize that the core of archaeology is interpretation. As such, a museum does itself a disservice when it doesn’t reveal to the audience how an interpretation came about, what archaeologists do to arrive at their interpretations. In this regard, I have, on my personal website, critiqued the new ancient Greek department at the National Museum of Antiquities for being old-fashioned and art-historical, rather than properly archaeological.

The good thing is that the temporary exhibitions at the National Museum of Antiquities are, in my opinion, usually very good. I have written positively about a collection of smaller exhibitions that I visited last year. Those exhibitions were small and focused, and I compared them to visual essays. The great thing about those exhibitions is that they didn’t simply focus on telling people about the past, but that they also revealed something about the archaeological process behind those stories.

Casa Romana is, to my mind, another triumph for the National Museum of Antiquities. It doesn’t delve deep into the archaeological process: there are hints here and there, such as at a display case with different children’s toys, where the accompanying text makes clear that the contexts in which these objects were found show that boys and girls played with similar toys. There are touches like that everywhere in the exhibition and they are greatly appreciated: they give the visitor a better idea of how archaeologists arrive at their conclusions.

But perhaps more importantly, the museum makes obvious that the past is not an immutable thing, but something that is constantly being negotiated. I love the fact that the designers of this exhibition juxtaposed ancient objects with modern ones. The area dedicated to dining and banquets features a modern set of blocks arranged like the reclining couches in a Roman dining room. In a very visual way, the museum has shown how the past is not something that simply exists, but something that needs to be created. Modern paintings of frescoes from Pompeii make clear that the past is continually appropriated and re-used: one series of paintings shows metal scaffolding overlapping the ancient frescoes – a painting that unites the old with the new and makes clear the amount of work that goes into (re)constructing the past.

If you happen to live in the Netherlands or are a planning a trip to Leiden, you would do yourself a disservice if you didn’t visit the Casa Romana exhibition at the National Museum of Antiquities of Leiden. You have the chance to do so until 17 September 2017; don’t miss out.

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