From the ashes

I’m certainly not the first to post a ‘first look’ review of the newest museum space in London, and I’m pretty sure that I won’t be the last, but here I go. Just a quick look.

By now I’m sure you’re all familiar with the story of London’s Temple of Mithras. Discovered during the clearance for redevelopment of a bombed out site near Cannon Street (1952-4). Saved for the nation (sort of) due to intense public interest. Relocated to the wholly inappropriate site on the concourse of Temple Court, Queen Victoria Street. And there it sat for 50 years do so until…

Now, finally, returned and restored to (more or less) its original site following the re-redevelopment of the site by Bloomberg for its new European headquarters. So, after much waiting and with high expectations, I was finally there.

Oooooh, it’s good. It is. It’s good. I mean, it’s Bloomberg, who have all the money in the world, so it’s a bit ‘corporate sleek and shiny’ but that’s ok. It’s nicely done. Understated rather than flashy. On entering, visitors’ first encounter is with the modern as the entrance hall, Bloomberg Space, holds (at the moment) a tapestry and sculpture by Isabel Nolan but we’re soon into the Roman, which is what we’re all here for, with a wall of finds from the 2011-14 excavations.

This collection is just a tiny proportion of the ~14,000 artefacts excavated from the site and includes a representative sample of everyday objects, as well as a few star finds.

This is the sort of display that could be a bit frustrating as the floor-to-ceiling format means that many of the objects are way above eye level. But, never fear, visitors are provided with ipads giving close-up views and information about the objects on display. This can also be accessed on your phone, which is handy.

From there, visitors begin to descend down to the earlier street levels, with a timeline running down the stairs for orientation. You can see how far back in time you are travelling, the lower down you go.

At the next level down we’re starting to get into the mithraic mindset. Three interactive stations give information about mithraism, about the cult in the Roman world, its iconography and possible meanings and about the London Mithraeum specifically.

I was particularly interested in the info on the London Mithraeum. This is also, basically, a waiting area as the visit to remains of the mithraeum itself includes an av presentation which gives visitors an impression of the atmosphere and sounds of the mithraeum in use. This runs about every 20 mins and then there’s time to stay and have a proper look at the remains too.

And here it is, finally, the London Mithraeum.

The presentation is, again, quite understated. Nothing too flashy. Even the av atmospherics aren’t over the top. They just give an impression of what a mithraeum would have been like, subtly filling in the spaces where the walls and columns would have been and bringing just enough life into the space. Looking at the remains themselves, this reconstruction is much more sympathetic than the 1960s one. Nuclear cement bonding…gone. Crazy crazy-paving…gone. Instead we have, as far as possible, the original remains, including the timber risers for the steps, the well and (look closely by the entrance) the door pivots.

So, all in all, this new museum space is a bit of a triumph. I could probably have done without Joanna Lumley’s breathy delivery on the voice-over, and I’d like to see some more detailed info about the recent MOLA excavations and the actual process of reconstructing the remains. Maybe just the addition of the MOLA publications for reference or printed copies of the  excellent (and free!) downloadable booklet. But these are minor points and personal preferences.

The London Mithraeum is free to visit but you do need to book a slot. Get booking because it’s proving popular. You get a free booklet when you visit and the use of the aforementioned ipads for info onsite.

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