Keynsham mosaics display leave ‘something to be desired’.
A review now of the display of mosaics that have been incorporated into Keynsham’s new Civic Centre from Bristol-based Anthony Beeson who is an acknowledged Classical iconographer and an expert on Roman and Greek art and architecture.
He is also the Honorary Archivist of the Association for Roman Archaeology and this review has been published in the latest edition of the ARA News. Anthony is a member of the Association for the Study and Preservation of Roman Mosaics. He is a writer and former Art Librarian at Bristol City Libraries.
‘Keynsham’s new civic centre entitled the One Stop Shop opened. The building combines a number of civic services, from library to police, under one roof.
Keynsham, the town that lies between Bath and Bristol, has had a raw deal so far as its antiquities and the tourism that they would have generated are concerned. Its huge and architecturally outstanding Roman complex on Durley Hill was chosen as the site of a new cemetery in the 1920s.
The obvious religious complex and the accompanying town believed to be Trajectus were first partly covered by Fry’s (later Cadbury’s) chocolate factory and, since the latter’s demise and following a controversial take-over, threatened by a plan for new housing on the site.
The remains of Keynsham’s great abbey were thoroughly dealt with by the construction of the town’s bypass in the 1960s. The Roman and medieval objects discovered rivalled anything displayed in either Bath or Bristol and should have generated enough civic pride in the town to have prompted a local museum.
The splendid mosaics found at Durley Hill were lifted and for many years were displayed as unrelated panels at the small museum founded at the gateway to Fry’s factory at Somerdale. In the 1980s this was closed and the mosaics and other antiquities went into long-term storage in the basement of the town hall.
The late Charles Browne campaigned endlessly for their permanent display somewhere in the town, and at least managed a splendid show in the Parish Church in 2000 when the author and others had the delight of displaying the Durley Hill mosaics together in their original positions for the first time since their discovery (Beeson, 2001).
The mosaics and other finds then went back into obscurity, and were later moved to a warehouse in Pixash Lane that has become an archaeological store. It was with delight therefore that one heard the news that a proposed new civic centre was going to display the mosaics and other objects. This author visited the finished building in January with great expectations.
The spectacular mosaic from room W at the Durley Hill complex, previously divided into framed panels, has now been beautifully restored and the sections joined together. It occupies a sunken area between the library and community reception desks and is glazed over.
This is a controversial but currently popular way of dealing with mosaics. Glass and its supporting steel framework generally does nothing to enhance a mosaic beneath them. If the choice is there and floor space is lacking, a wall mounting is generally to be preferred.
The steelwork at Keynsham does follow the shape of the guilloche framing of the panels in an attempt not to obscure the design too much and, on the whole, the display is better than it might have been.
Light reflection on the glass is also a problem with this type of display, and is unfortunately so at Keynsham as neon light strips have been placed on the ceiling over the floor.
Wonderful as it is to see the main pavement joined again, it is a pity that the building could not have been designed so that the mosaic could have been displayed better.
Unfortunately the remaining isolated panel with birds from the same floor is nowhere to be seen; it could have accompanied the beautiful rosette centre-piece from room J that is attached, slightly too high, to an otherwise blank staircase wall that overlooks the main pavement.
This rosette is one of the gems of mosaic work in its handling of colour and technique remaining to us from Roman Britain. An accompanying panel from this mosaic is unfortunately not
displayed with it.
Neither of the mosaics displayed has any museum labelling; there is a no-doubt expensive terminal that is supposed to inform the curious about them, but it was out of order when I visited. Someone had very kindly photocopied a leaflet about the mosaics, but the description of what was happening on the Achilles panel was muddled. One hopes that the information terminal provides a clearer description.
What was particularly annoying with this new display, however, was the fact that someone (presumably the designer) had decided that it would be a great idea to place seating on three sides of the pavement, both blocking the central viewing area before the Europa panel and overlapping the edges of the mosaic.
Not only does one have to cope with reflected ceiling lighting and glass but also with people sitting with their legs and bags resting over the floor. No doubt this stems from some muddle-headed idea that it ‘brings the mosaic into the community’.
None of the library staff that I questioned had any idea who had made the decision to place the seating there. It is becoming depressingly commonplace in British museums, when reorganising and rebuilding such institutions, that designers’ and architects’ wishes override those of curatorial staff – when there are any.
Whilst one tried to view the glazed mosaic there appeared to be a permanent meeting of several people wearing name badges who successfully managed to obfuscate the Europa panel and made no attempt to move so that others might view it properly.
It really made this author wonder why so much money had been spent on displaying a national treasure only to allow it to be obscured so easily. I fortunately went at a quiet time, so one wonders what the experience would be if it had been busy.
Windows at the One Stop Shop have been used as museum cases displaying minor stonework from the abbey and some pottery, tesserae and building materials from the Roman sites.
The cream of these collections, including a rare statue base dedicated to Silvanus, alas still remain in the store at Pixash Lane.
It is wonderful to have these mosaics finally on display, but what an opportunity to display Keynsham’s treasures properly has been missed.’