Gary Studley is currently poet-in-residence at Canterbury Roman Museum.
Minasan konnichiwa, and welcome to Blog Eight. Today’s imaginary title is IMMERSION.
If you were to daftly put aside any notion of looking at the artefacts and just walk around the Roman Museum at the sort of speed that makes you look like you need the toilet or are trying not to miss your bus, then you could – for want of a better word – ‘do’ the whole place in maybe 1-2 minutes. More, obviously, if you go at it like an Olympic speed-walker then less, or in a pinching pair of shoes rubbing at your bunions. But basically, if you were just there to tick off a cultural site and hop back on the coach to work your way around Europe, then yes, it wouldn’t take long because the square footage of the building is not huge. Alternatively, if you were to invest on each display the sort of time that has long been said to be given to each individual picture in a major London gallery (6 seconds) then it would probably take you 7-8 minutes. But if you were to read every piece of information or really get your nose in close to the tiles, broaches, coins, hair-pins, swords, bottles etc, etc, etc, etc, well – as all the etc imply – you could easily spend a highly pleasurable 2-3 hours therein and still feel that you need to come back again.
There is indeed so much to explore and learn that, as said previously, my initial reaction was of feeling daunted by the size and weight of the history on show.
And if I’m honest, by my own capacity to take on board stuff that I kind of felt I should already know – and by stuff I mean intelligent information. And by know I mean grasp their purpose, associated time-line and relevance to both Britain and myself, in the then and now.
I don’t think this feeling of feeling daunted or distanced from history is unusual. The UK has three of the world’s ten most visited museums and galleries at present (The British Museum, Tate Modern and National Gallery), so there are obviously many millions of visitors each year to museums in the UK, with the British Museum alone having had a staggering 6.7 million visitors in 2014. Yet, despite this very healthy situation, I know there are still people who find museums off-putting, but not because of the artefacts themselves or how they are displayed. Rather, I think it’s because people are worried that they don’t know enough to access things – or worse, to explain it to their kids! Of course there may be also a plethora of victims who suffered the ‘learning by rote’ of ‘names & dates of heads of state or battles fought & lost, countries colonised & enemies imprisoned’ style of education and therefore didn’t have the most exciting start with the subject. Recently some fellow writers admitted that they were unsure of whether they could write anything about Romans as they knew so little about them. I am pleased to say that by the end of our explore and discover session, not only had a lot of time been spent absorbed by the Gods’ display; funeral bottles; Whitstable dishes; pavement remains and all, but that each and every one of us had been inspired to write. Subsequent chats have revealed that although, like many writers, my colleagues may be a little hesitant about how good their pieces are, the general acknowledgement is that now we have investigated the artefacts first hand, we our less daunted by the prospect of a museum.
Luckily those who are seldom daunted by what we assume they might find hard are young children. Kids constantly surprise us by their ability to adapt to situations; their endless poking and prodding of things; the relentless raft of questions approaching like a destroyer on the horizon for any unconfident parent. Under such circumstances we have many choices to make when riddled by questions like a machine gun. A) Is a brave one, i.e. to admit we don’t know an answer – but this may not actually stop the barrage of queries that the kids unleash. Choice B) is to attempt to dredge some kind of half-forgotten possibility of an explanation out of the dark recesses of our distant past – but sometimes all this means is that they immediately ask another question and depth charge us to smithereens just when we thought we were clear. To employ method C) is difficult, in that it is a strategy where we deflect the children by either excitedly noticing something else to look at; recalling a fantasy appointment that we don’t have; or by asking them an alternative question about what flavour ice-lolly they want; or even by changing the subject dramatically – but of course this does not work if your child is part terrier/part pit-bull and refuses to let go!
Yesterday I witnessed the way I was lucky enough to be raised by my parents and grandparents – Method D. There was a small boy working in the Mini-Dig area of the museum. To the casual observer, this looks very much like a backyard sand-pit full of safety bark. However, this 3/4 year old (Samuel) saw WAY beyond this. He had donned the safety helmet and was on his hands and knees at the edge of the dig area. Samuel wasn’t speaking, but was using the small trowel provided to leaf through the recycled material that the museum had provided to represent soil – as the real thing would obviously be problematic. His mum was sitting on the nearest bench, and although she was watching her son very closely, she didn’t ask any questions unless he spoke or gave her something. At times Samuel would get up and go over to the display case holding items found by the Canterbury Excavation Committee whilst discovering the Roman Mosaic House. Without drawing too much attention to myself, I watched him as he stood on tip-toe and tried to see through the cabinet to the black and white photographs on the wall. Once his mum lifted him up he carefully tried not to lean on the cabinet to point at a photograph of an archaeologists on his knees, with a trowel, gently scraping away at the prized mosaic they’d uncovered. This checking happened twice when I was there and when he went back to the dig it wasn’t to claw away at the material as if digging for treasure at the beach, but instead he slowly leafed through the material with the point of the trowel, turning things over very carefully and banking the ‘soil’ up on his right.
Every so often Samuel would gasp and lift out one of the artefacts the museum staff had buried in the dig area. When he did so, his mum took them from his hand and laid them down on a clear part of the bench-top. It was only then that she asked him what he thought they were.
“A bone… Bit of plate… Badge thing…”
After each find he also got off his knees and used the paintbrush provided to brush off (imaginary) dust or sand from the objects, and each time he did so his mum asked him what he thought the Romans used them for, and apart from a clay lamp (“jug for hair-wash”) by the end of his excavation Samuel may not have known what each thing was without his mum’s input – but he had found a oil-lamp; a fibula broach; pottery; some chips of painted plaster and yes, bones – and he did think he was an “arckolist” – or as we like to say, archaeologist. And he was one for at least 20 minutes.
Now, if I’m honest I admire his mum. True, she was yawning up a storm behind her hand by the end of it, but she did so with no griping or attempting to hurry him on. Every time he asked a question she tried to answer it. And when she couldn’t tell him what the bones were from she asked him what he thought (“tiger”) and even at the end, when Samuel kept asking what the lamp was, as she wasn’t quite sure herself she took him by the hand and led him back through the museum to see if they could “find one like it.” Out of empathy regarding her long day I said “There’s one of those in the kitchen.” when she went past and we got chatting. She explained that although her husband wanted to believe Samuel had somehow absorbed a love of Time Team because it was on sometimes when he woke up in the night to be fed, she thought “It’s more likely to be Horrible Histories doing Egypt or some-such on CBBC. He loves that sick stuff.” Whatever the case, I take my hat off to her skills as an educator and to the museum for providing such a simple, hands-on experience for a bright kid like Samuel to enjoy. And more power to all three of them!