Roman Baths (22).JPEG

The Roman Baths

Sept. 17, 2019

The same day as No.1 Royal Crescent we also had a workshop at the Roman Baths.

The natural springs on the site were used as a place of worship by the Celts then developed by the Romans for social and religious bathing starting in ca. 60 AD. Both groups dedicated the natural spring to a god (Suilis, and Minerva, respectively). The Romans created a complex around the baths and used them for hundreds of years. After the Romans withdrew from Britain the Baths fell into disrepair and were modified over several centuries. The original Baths have been excavated and interpreted for visitors among the Georgian architecture.

The OPP's first stop there was to talk to the Roman Bath's Learning & Participation Manager, Lindsey Braidley. She had a PowerPoint ready to go for us and a lovely a tea/coffee break. We discussed the important balancing relationship between 'Customers, Conservation, and Commercial' in museums, reaching new audiences, providing interactive components, and education elements for the institution.

We also talked about the large overhaul of exhibition space and design the staff had executed over the past few years, mainly to bring interpretation away from art history and more toward stories about people. They wanted to increase accessibility and interactive experience because of public requests.

After our talk with Lindsey we toured the Baths from start to finish. The tour starts at the top veranda above the baths, the goes to a giant exhibition about the archaeology, objects, and use of the area, then a walk through the underground ruins, more exhibit, then the lower level of the baths next to the water and spa areas. There was a lot to take in.

What I liked

  1. The new interpretation involves a handful of Roman characters for visitors to follow and learn from through the spaces. The characters are based on real Roman individuals identified by information found in excavated objects on-site: lead curses, tombs, and stones. These characters are interpreted using voice actors on the audio guides and life-size videos projected onto scrims in changing rooms, saunas, and baths. This method of interpretation helped to personify the real people who used this space thousands of years ago, as well as show visitors exactly how the rooms were used.
  2. Exploring the Baths/spa areas themselves was fantastic. I loved that there weren't many restrictions on what we could touch. The only barriers that were up were to keep people from unsafe areas. They were keeping the visitors safe from the museum, not the other way around. I appreciated the trust and getting to walk exactly where people walked thousands of years ago.
  3. Object-wise, anything the museum didn't want you to touch was behind glass. And there wasn't a lot under glass.
  4. The museum interpreted day-to-day life for Romans in the area. Usually we just learn about the big overarching elements of their culture, but most parts of this museum brought it down to a personal scale.
  5. The Bath's shop has started using an owl as a mascot. 'Hoot Hoot' the owl represents Minerva who was the goddess of wisdom and warfare. He sells like hot cakes. Little 4" plush owls go by the thousands. He also leads trails, and appears on stickers for kids.
  6. The logistics for visitors were well identified and addressed. Strollers for kids aren't allowed in the museum and baths area so the museum provides secure places to lock up your stuff and baby slings for care givers. Visitors can pick these up right next to the free audio wands and trail guides.

What I disliked

  1. The exhibition part was much less interesting to me than the actual bath spaces. In the exhibit rooms there was SO much stuff. The museum could take out half of the objects and I'd still feel overwhelmed. I feel like if you're trying to get your 1.2 million visitors to take away something you should stick to a main idea and interpret it. The objects and exhibits inside were way too diverse and extensive. I found myself speed-walking through more than half of the exhibit trying to find the exit. Though the museum provided a map of the exhibit to show visitors how far they've gone, I really underestimated the time it took to even just skim through the panels, so I was rushed through the latter part of my visit.
  2. The audio guides were about twice as long as they needed to be, so I listened to the kids' guides instead... they were still really long.
  3. The museum displays human remains, a prominent statue head, and cache of historic coins all into one space. I'm weary in the first place about exhibiting human remains, since they can't give consent to be on display to over a million people per year. Then there's the problem of putting the remains in the same space as other really popular objects. The space was very very crowded. The room they were all in was made right above where the remains were found so it makes sense for the bones to stay in that room. I think it'd be better if the museum moved out all other objects from the room and left the remains there, if its imperative for them to stay on display. That way the area is more of a quiet, sacred place rather than a curiosity display.

After our official visit to the Roman Baths a group of us went to the Bath Stable for food and craft cider. After that we returned to the Baths for a torch-lit tour of the Roman spaces. I really liked getting to see the baths at night and it was much less crowded then too than the middle of the day. We followed a fantastic tour led by Liv, a guide who really knew her stuff. The tour was a perfect mix of the spaces' use and function, Roman hygiene culture, and roman architecture history- complete with props and technology components.

It was interesting seeing the spaces during both times- super crowded with tourists and then almost empty with a few night owls. That experience showed how versatile the spaces can be, such a beautiful and serene place can also accommodate thousands of people per day. Fun Fact: The Baths get 1.2 MILLION visitors per year.

Overall we had a great time at the Roman Baths! We took advantage of the low crowds in the evening to have many photo-ops:


Museum Professional. Traveler. Cat lover.

Chloe Wingard