For your Vindolanda Scholars, this has been a week of museums. From Vindolanda to Tully House to John Clayton’s awe-inspiring collections at Chesters, we have explored, read and analyzed a multitude of finds from along Hadrian’s Wall, creating for ourselves a picture of life on the northern frontier. Today’s visit to Newcastle’s Great North Museum, under the guiding hand of Dr. Rob Collins, was expected to be no different.
What came to light, however, was something new. After a week of developing our own narrative of Hadrian’s Wall , Dr. Collins threw a curveball at our understanding of the past. Although all week we had critically examined primary and secondary sources on Roman Britain, understanding authors and their biases, he asked us to question the avenues of the information themselves: museums.
As one of the best ways of portraying history for the general public, museums choose how to tell the story of the past, and what specific story to tell. However, museums face the challenge of integrating materials and collections from a number of sites and eras, selecting the best interpretation of ambiguous material, and dealing with exhibit spaces that are constantly changing. Their exhibits are designed to appeal to the public, often ascribing more importance to areas and events which have greater mass appeal. In addition, most museums are working with constrained budgets. Even the simple expenses associated with changing a display case (switching artifacts, ensuring safe and adequate lighting) can quickly add up, and place heavy limitations on what museum staff can do.
There is no question that museums are invaluable in sharing history with the public. But as a center of learning, people trust the information they are given and buy into the narrative they are presented. As we wrapped up our explorations of the Great North Museum, Dr. Collins encouraged us to be careful when constructing our image of Hadrian’s Wall. Who is missing from these accounts? Are we projecting images of ourselves when we construct images of Roman life? In the same way Romans attempted to “Romanize” the locales of Britain, are we trying to modernize the legends of Roman Britain to contextualize them in a way which we understand?
History is at its best a story, a tale of the past from a certain perspective. However, as the Parthenon Marbles have demonstrated in recent news, there is no fixed or right outlook on who can present history to the world and how. As next week heralds the beginning of our archaeological adventures at Vindolanda, we have the opportunity to add our own perceptions of life at Hadrian’s Wall to the current narrative. With today’s Newcastle adventures providing a fresh mindset going forwards, perhaps the most important thing to remember is this: the history of Roman Britain is not my story, or your story, or even our story. It is the story of people from long, long ago, and we owe it to them to tell it right.