York: Yorkshire Museum

The Yorkshire Museum wasn’t on my must-visit list, but we ended up going to see it anyway because we had to kill some time before our train on our last day in York. Along with York Castle Museum and York Art Gallery it is part of the York Museums Trust, so if you plan on visiting all three, it is probably worth getting the YMT card to save a bit of money, but we got free admission to the Yorkshire Museum with our National Art Pass anyway, so we didn’t bother (admission is otherwise £8).


The Yorkshire Museum has three main sections: Jurassic World, Roman York, and Medieval York (I guess you need to visit the York Castle Museum and Jorvik Viking Centre as well to get a more comprehensive version of York’s history), and we started with Jurassic World, which was a fairly standard dinosaur gallery with a few touchy bits, as you can see above. This is apparently a temporary but “long-term” exhibition, and we had seen it advertised all over town, with the tagline, “Now Open!” but aside from a VR dinosaur-feeding game (I desperately wanted to play, but it wasn’t clear whether we could without staff supervision, and there was no staff to be found), nothing here felt particularly state of the art. It was more the kind of thing you’d find in any local history museum with a decent-sized prehistoric section.


We quickly moved on to Roman York, which was a more extensive series of galleries that took up the rest of the ground floor. I was initially apprehensive about entering the museum because of the large group of school children just outside armed with wooden swords and shields who seemed to be making an awful lot of noise, and it was in Roman York that we encountered them. The museum I work at only has school groups in on days the museum is closed to the public to avoid situations like this one, and larger museums with dedicated education rooms tend to steer school groups mainly to those, but I guess in a museum that is open to the public every weekday but without extensive special facilities, they have no choice but to stick school kids in with the general public. Honestly, it would have been fine if they hadn’t been so damn loud, but they were! They also just barged in front of us as we were trying to look at things, including the skeleton above. Some kid kept telling his friends it was the skeleton of a gladiator despite the case clearly stating it was a woman. You’d think eight year olds would be able to at least read the word “woman,” but apparently not these ones, and no one was bothering to correct them.


In an effort to get away from them, we basically skipped the last room of Roman York, and headed downstairs for Medieval York (where we were granted an all too brief reprieve before they followed, but at least it was a reprieve). This was definitely the best of the main galleries, and was a bit more Viking and early medieval than late Middle Ages (which is the period I know more about), so it was nice to see some unusual artefacts and learn more about this period in York’s history.


Even though there were some lovely things on display, like the York Helmet, one of only three intact Anglian helmets found in Britain, and lots of hilarious stained glass cross-eyed kings, my favourite things were definitely the signs for children containing historical facts illustrated with funny cartoons, like the one above (I think it’s probably just a coincidence that he looks a bit like a thin Trump, though the bumbling idiocy and complete lack of consideration for other people seems to fit)!


I also liked the fun game (one of the few interactive things in this museum not solely aimed at children) where you could determine how Viking you were based on your interests. The Viking in the game actually looked a bit like Marcus, so I wasn’t surprised that he was 30% more Viking than I am (in terms of actual ancestry, I don’t think either of us are particularly Viking, since neither of us has any Scandinavian ancestry. At least none we know about).


The final section of the museum that we saw was probably Marcus’s favourite part, as it contained “The Map that Changed the World,” a 200 year old geological map drawn by the “father of English geology” William “Strata” Smith (good nickname). The label said that the map was covered by a roller blind, but as you can see, it was just sitting out in the open during our visit, though there was another map with a cloth over the top that you were allowed to lift to look at it. Not being a geology enthusiast, my favourite part was the poor taxidermed bear in one corner of the library.


Although it contained some interesting things, I don’t think I would have bothered seeing this museum if hadn’t got in for free. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary from the average local history museum (though it is undoubtedly bigger than many, including the one I work at), and although I fully understand the importance of museum visits for the younger generations, the school children were quite loud and disruptive and I think they probably could have been encouraged to walk through the museum in a more orderly manner. 2.5/5 for the Yorkshire Museum, but our visit to York overall (intruder in our hotel room notwithstanding) was lovely. I’m definitely a fan of the potato scallop, which we don’t see down south (just a battered slice of potato – the veggie alternative to fish, at least at places too old school to have battered halloumi or tofu) and the cheap cheap Northern prices (60p for a giant potato scallop and free scraps? Yes please!) so I will undoubtedly return!

London: The Mithraeum

The London Mithraeum has been on my to-do list for a long time, but because Ancient Romans aren’t exactly a priority, I kept putting it off. But since I knew I’d be in the area anyway for a training course, and I was taking a trip to Rome the week following, I thought I might as well get myself in the mood by looking at some Roman ruins right here in London (I also made potato pizza al metro style, which is one of my favourite things to eat in Rome, but that was more because I had potatoes and slightly mouldy Gruyere to use up, and because you can never have too much pizza). Planning ahead with the Mithraeum is key, since they strongly encourage you to pre-book a free slot.

The Mithraeum is located in the Bloomberg building, which I was a little concerned about finding since the City is very easy to get lost in, but it is located right next to one of the many entrances to Bank Station and is clearly signposted outside. I arrived about twenty minutes early because my course had finished a bit sooner than anticipated, but I was welcomed right in (though I was asked for my ticket as soon as I walked through the door, so clearly they are serious about the pre-booking, even though it wasn’t busy at all when I was there), and given an introduction to the three floors of the space, which made it sound quite grand. The reality is a little bit different. The ground floor is meant to be the gallery space, though I really didn’t get the current installation at all, nor was there any explanation provided. It just seemed to be a load of bottles sitting on a tiled cube, with some tiled benches to one side that may or may not have been part of the installation.

The highlight of this section was definitely the big wall o’artefacts, actually a wall of Roman ruins excavated from the site, which were beautifully arranged and had a rack full of tablets next to them that you could pick up and use to learn more about each object. I’ve never seen shards of pottery referred to as “sherds” before, as they were here, but perhaps it’s an Anglicism I’m unfamiliar with (I asked my curator colleague about it at work, and she informs me that you come across it occasionally, but shard is more common now. I guess they’re more or less interchangeable, except in the case of the building. Maybe I’ll start calling it the “Sherd” just to be weird). Had I known how underwhelming the other floors would be, I might have spent more time studying the wall, but as it was, I only spent about five minutes looking at it before heading down to the mezzanine level.

This contained replicas of exactly three objects, each with a touch screen where you could learn more about it: the head of Mithras, the Tauroctony (a plaque with a bull on it, basically), and a replica of the original temple. Now seems like an appropriate time to get into the history of the site that I’ve been neglecting up til now. Basically, like pretty much everywhere in the Square Mile, this area was part of the original Londinium, Roman London. In 1952, a temple was discovered during the course of excavating a bomb site. This was the Mithraeum, a 3rd century temple dedicated to the god Mithras, who appears to have been known mainly for slaying a bull. Not much is known about the Cult of Mithras, except for it was men-only and probably involved drinking in some capacity, but it was certainly popular, as 100 different Mithraea have been discovered all over the former Roman Empire. The one in London was dismantled in 1954 and reconstructed in a different site, but when Bloomberg bought the original site in 2010, they agreed to move the temple roughly back to where it was discovered, which is where it is today.

They clearly have tried to turn the Mithraeum into a bit more of an experience than what is merited by what is actually here. They only let people in every twenty minutes to the actual ruins, so you just have to hang out in the dark mezzanine area with the three illuminated objects in the meantime, which is why I regretted not spending more time on the ground level. Once you are actually inside, you experience, as they call it, “an ephemeral installation,” aka some sound and light effects: hazy light and a recording of some men mumbling in Latin. The lights gradually come up so you can actually view the ruins, which are underwhelming at best, but that is what I tend to think about all ruins. I was wondering whether I had to stay in here for the whole twenty minutes, because I’d more than finished with the ruins after about three (there being nothing to read within the temple itself), when some guy came out and told us a bit more about the site. Apparently 80% of the ruins are original, and 20% are a reconstruction, which I assume includes the metal figure of Mithras and a bull in the middle of the altar. Fortunately, after he finished talking, people started to leave, so I felt free to make my escape too.

As I always feel when something is free, I can’t complain overmuch, but the word “underwhelming,” which I’ve already used at least twice in this post, is the main thing that comes to mind. Apparently the old site wasn’t much visited, and I think they’ve tried to jazz it up a little to make it more of an attraction, but there’s only so much you can do with ruins. I suppose if they’d tried to get more artefacts in they could have made more out of it, but most of those, including ones found on the site (other than what’s on the display wall) are now housed at the Museum of London. So I’ll give it 2/5. It’s nice that they’ve tried to preserve it, and maybe people who actually like the Romans (not me, though Mary Beard tries her best (and to be fair to her, her programmes are interesting, I’m just not motivated to learn more after I finish watching them)) will get more out of it, but I certainly wasn’t thrilled.



St Albans, Hertfordshire: Verulamium Museum

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I know my last couple of posts have been pretty exciting (Osborne House might have even been a little too thrilling for some of you), so I’ll tone things down a bit this week with a triumvirate of posts (this weird usage will make sense when you realise the subject matter, I promise) on local museums in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.  The first is the Verulamium Museum in St Albans, which I visited with my boyfriend a few Saturdays ago.

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a fairly cantankerous individual, and that the list of things I don’t like is a long one, including, but certainly not limited to: butterflies, the outdoors, using the phone, stone circles, and obnoxiously large fonts.  Well, I may have not mentioned this before, but you can add Romans to that list.  I don’t really have anything specific against the Romans, I just find them kind of dull (aside from a handful of the crazier emperors).  I”m not entirely sure why, as you’d think an entire civilisation of people who were essentially suffering from lead poisoning would be right up my alley, but I could never summon up much enthusiasm for anything before Medieval England, and really my jams (to incorrectly use the parlance of the kids) are the Georgians and Victorians. But St Albans is very much a Roman town, and there I was at the Verulamium, so I reckoned I might as well make the best of things.

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When we arrived, the adjacent parking lot was full, so we had to park a few blocks away.  I imagine most of the people were probably using the nearby park, as the museum was fairly empty.  Admission to the intriguingly circular museum is £3.80, and a heads up (because I know I was searching for them) – the toilets are right by the entrance, down the stairs at the front of the gift shop, not in the actual museum.  The first gallery was an introduction to ancient settlement in St Albans, which was known as Verulamium (hence the name of the museum, which is perhaps obvious, but my Latin is not great, and I thought it was maybe some sort of Roman term for a special kind of museum, although museum IS Latin, so I really don’t know what I was thinking.  Probably best to just ignore me on this.).

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The museum then opened up into a neat little rotunda, with various galleries leading off from the centre, each covering a different aspect of Roman life (and death), from money to merchants, to religion and entertainment.  Every topic was illustrated with a number of artefacts that had been found in St Albans, clearly a rich source of Roman treasures.  I think my favourite objects were the brooches and the whimsical face-jug, which can be seen above.  Perhaps it is a less frightening ancestor of the Toby jug?

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The best gallery had to be the one with life size dioramas of Roman life, since all you readers will of course also be well aware of my fondness for wax figures.  There was even some “ancient” graffiti on some of the walls, (the example shown here even included my boyfriend’s name) but no authentic smells (and believe me, I sniffed my way around the place).  Though I’m not that sure what authentic Roman stink would consist of, since they had good plumbing, and most authentic smells seem to be largely poo-based.  Liquamen maybe?

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Whilst I’m still not a fan of the Romans, the Verulamium Museum did win my heart with the use of a pun in the burial section.  There were a few skeleton-filled coffins on display, but only one of them was given a name, that of Posthumus, Roman aristocrat.  I mean, come on, isn’t that a good pun/name?  They’ve even reconstructed a model of his head based off his skull, and have put together a video where an actor playing Posthumus walks around modern St Albans.  It was pretty delightful.

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Another important object in the museum is the Verulamium Venus, who is of course the Roman goddess of love, rendered in bronze.  I overheard one of the museum staff telling a man that she was twice stolen from the museum, but is simply too well known of an artefact to be sold, and was thus returned to the museum on both occasions.

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The back wall of the museum is dominated by a collection of excellent large mosiacs, including the shell motif, a lion and stag, and, my personal favourite, the Sea God, pictured at the start of this post.  Scroll back up and have a look at him, and I think you’ll see why.


After leaving the museum, we cut across the surprisingly large and well-equipped park to check out the ruins of a hypocaust and a tile floor that are preserved beneath a modern building.  There’s a couple of informational posters inside the building, but the main attraction is clearly the floor, which the walkway carefully steers you around.  The Romans may not be my cup of tea, but it is undeniably cool to see something that old just hanging out in a public park in the middle of England.  It’s definitely worth the walk from the museum if you’re already visiting.

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I did admittedly skip over a lot of the signs in the museum, because I just can’t muster up much enthusiasm about every nuance of Roman life, but if you actually are into the Classics, I’d imagine you’d love it.  I did very much enjoy the section on burial, and the mosaics were undeniably cool.  I’ll give it a 3.5/5.