Monday, 1 February 2010

Notes From a Small Island (by Bill Bryson)

I've been reading Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island since, oh, about last November, and I still haven't finished (somehow there's stll always too much to do). The other day, I came across Bryson's description of a Roman ruin with mosaic he went to see near Cirencester, Spoonley Wood Villa. According to the BBC, the villa has become somewhat better known since the book was published, though it doesn't sound like it's being preserved and presented by English Heritage or the National Trust the way Lullingstone or Chedworth are. These are usually covered over, an entrance fee is charged and there's a shop and cafe and so on.

What impressed Bryson about this one, though, is that is was just hidden away in the wood, with a polystyrene cover over the mosaic. His description of the villa is beautiful, and he describes how 'for the first time it dawned on me in a kind of profound way that all those Roman antiquities I had gazed at over the years weren't created with a view to ending up one day in museums'. He talks about how much easier it was to imagine Romans living and walking here, in an ancient wood looking at the mosaic in situ (though the BBC point out that some of the mosaic may be 19th century reconstruction).

After this, Bryson moves from the sublime to the ridiculous as he describes (perfectly) getting lost in Milton Keynes, then I got very cross when he said he didn't want to visit Rugby, Coventry or Birmingham, three places where I have many happy memories from my late teens and early twenties.

It's nice to know that what we study is really appreciated by others, and I can understand Bryson's point about museums. It can be hard to be impressed by dry exhibits behind glass and as I've said many times, I didn't find the ancient world at all interesting in my early teens, despite a number of museum visits (I did love the mummies in the British Museum though). There are some exciting museum projects going on at the moment to try to make the exhibits more exciting though - at the conference in Lampeter last year we heard about one museum that was using Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries books to help the exhibits come alive for children (and I'd tell you which one it was if I could remember... sorry!).

I'm sure that it's not just children who can benefit from this sort of thing - adults are just as likely to enjoy an exhibit more and find it more engaging if it is a bit less clinical, even if not all Roman ruins can be left in the quiet and idyllic situation Bryson found Spoonley Wood in. Hence my love of pop culture - despite all their manifest flaws, Gladiator, I, Claudius, Rome and so on all bring these things to life so much more effectively than a dry label in a museum. Perahps one day I'll open a museum that shows film clips next to the exhibits...


  1. You do know my PhD concerns the exhibits of Fishbourne Roman Palace, and making them more interesting, right? ;)

  2. I did not - sounds v interesting! I've never studied heritage management myself but I think it's fascinating and it has actual tangible results!

  3. I believe it's the Ashmolean in Oxford, (poss. the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge?) but now that I look for it, I can't find info on it anywhere.

  4. Scratch that, it's the Museum of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge.

  5. Have you ever read "Digging Holes in Popular Culture" by Miles Russell (preface by Douglas Adams)?

    If you haven't, it's all about Archaeological influences on TV/films/games, etc. While it focuses on sci-fi, you might find it interesting.

    I've never read it myself, but Miles was one of my lecturers during my Undergrad and his lectures on the subject were always good.

  6. I thought it was in Cambridge somewhere - thanks Laura!

    I haven't read the Russell book - sounds interesting though

  7. It was actually the museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge ( although, in fairness to the other museums mentioned, they're all doing some brilliant work.

    In terms of book recommendations, if you haven't read "From stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture" you would really enjoy it. He makes some brilliant points about what archaeologists could learn about ourselves from popular culture, if we weren't so damn snooty about it. He also has some great ideas about museums.

  8. I hadn't heard of that one, sounds good!

  9. I've just realised that I didn't tell you the author: Cornelius Holtorf.


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