Monday, 23 September 2013

Nemi at Nottingham Castle

This weekend, I finally managed to make the short trip across to Nottingham to see 'The Treasure of Nemi' exhibition at Nottingham Castle Museum before it closes.  Its scary just how quickly exhibitions fly past, and before you know it they're in their final week and you still haven't been!

The subject material is wonderful, and a great idea for an exhibition.  The sanctuary of the goddess Diana at Lake Nemi, southeast of Rome, is a very famous archaeological site and was a renowned shrine through its long life between the 5th Century BC and the 2nd Century AD.

Ovid, in his 'Fasti' (his partially surviving tour through the religious festivals of the Roman calendar), mentions Nemi for the month of March:

"Teach me, nymph, servant of Diana's grove and pool;
Come, nymph, Numa's wife, witness your deeds.
In Aricia's valley, circled by a shady wood 
Is a lake, hallowed by an ancient cult.
Here Hippolytus hides, unfleshed by horses' reins;
Hence no horses may enter the grove.
The long hedgerows are covered with hanging threads;
Many placards give thanks to the goddess.
Often a woman is granted her prayer, wreathes her brow
And bears shimmering torches from the city.
The grove is ruled by runaways with strong hands and feet,
Who later perish by their own example.
A pebbly rivulet spills down with shifting sounds:
I have often drunk from there in small sips.
Egeria supplies the water, the Camenae's
Darling goddess, Numa's wife and council.
At first the Quirites were too eager for war;
Numa tamed them with law and fear of gods.
Laws were made to cabin the power of the strong,
And ancient rites were observed exactly.
Barbarism is peeled off, justice surpasses arms,
And civil violence becomes shameful.
An altar's sight induces recent brutes to offer
Wine and salted spelt on glowing hearths."

One of the most fascinating (and downright mad) elements of the Nemi site is the priest that presided over it.  Known as the 'Rex Nemorensis' ('King of the Grove'), the priest was a runaway slave who held his position until another runaway slave took a bough from a tree at the site and killed him!  Suffice it to say, this was not normal procedure for Roman priesthood succession planning!

The site was excavated in 1885 by Lord Savile, then British Minister in Rome.  He had an agreement with Prince Orsini, the landowner, that they would share the finds 50-50.  Thankfully, though Orsini let his collection be scattered, Savile donated his collection to Nottingham Castle on his return to England.

So, what was the exhibition like? Overall, it has to be said that the quality of the collection makes it a success, though there are certain little things that jarred me while I was looking round, and I need to get them off my chest first before telling you what I really liked!

Firstly, I actually had trouble finding the exhibition within the museum and found myself wandering a bit randomly through various galleries trying to find generic 'temporary exhibition' signage. It would have been nice to have had some bespoke signage throughout the museum to help locate the galleries and promote the existence of the exhibition.  When I eventually found the galleries, I entered by one of a number of entrances, but not one that provided me with an introduction, leaving me wandering through the experience effectively backwards, which wasn't critical but was a little frustrating.

The exhibition was neat and tidy but felt a little staid and old fashioned, an opinion also shared by the two people I visited with.  For example the rooms seemed to me to be begging for some large scale vinyls of the beautiful lake setting to transport visitors into the environment and inject some vibrancy and colour.  A sense of place was lacking from the interpretation in general, as although certain panels did discuss the setting of the shrine perfectly adequately, it wasn't particularly brought to life.  This seemed a shame when the location of the shrine is one of its most appealing and significant aspects.

Image from
Linked to this previous comment, and perhaps reflecting the budgeting realities of modern museums, was the interpretation for the display cases of votive offerings.  I really loved how the offerings had been arranged in chronological groupings to demonstrate the changing nature of the offerings over time, and the displays themselves were attractive and eye-catching, but why oh why did they decide to use laminated sheets of A4 for the interpretation?  I don't have a problem with using a numbering system to avoid cluttering an attractive and object-rich display with text-heavy labels, but to use laminated sheets (tearing apart at the edges) seems cheap to me and isn't worthy of the quality of the objects.  This was compounded by the fact that there was only one set of interpretation for each display case, and the text often ran over multiple sheets, sometimes cutting halfway through a single object's interpretation.  I'm afraid it lets down the quality of the display immensely.  Oh, and some of the sheets had even become mixed up between display cases as they weren't graphically distinguished in any way.  Grrr...

With those gripes out of the way, let me get on with telling you what I liked, because overall, as I said at the outset, the quality of the material is wonderful and the interpretation is very good.  Nottingham Castle is extremely fortunate to have such a collection from this wonderful site and its great to see it being placed in the spotlight.

I always find votive objects fascinating, and the collection on show is second to none.  The fact that there are so many from the same site makes them especially interesting, and means that changes in fashions can be traced through time.  A whole range of anatomical models (hands, feet, pregnant women etc); full and partial statuettes of animals, deities (namely Diana and Minerva); busts of unidentified people in both bronze and terracotta and miniature versions of various pots and jars are all on display, and I spent a long time peering into the neat displays looking at the tiny details - absolutely wonderful!

The use of 'broken' columns as display cases in the centre of one room was a neat touch, as were the mirrors at the bottom of them, no doubt a device designed to carry the idea of the mirror-like qualities of the lake, sometimes known as 'speculum Dianae' - the mirror of Diana.  It was also nice to see a variety of architectural material on wall-mounted open display.  The mounting was well done and the arrangement attractive.

The 'Fundilia Room' was arranged to represent a single room at the shrine, built around 50BC and partially excavated by Savile.  The objects in this room, including images of objects now in Copenhagen, provide the personal touch to the displays, containing as they do the names and faces of people involved with patronising and worshipping at the shrine.  This includes the fabulous herm of Fundilia Rufa, who has become the 'face' of the exhibition, and the character through which the social media was focussed.  The quality of the objects is wonderful and the arrangement a great success.  I confess I got very much caught up moving from object to object and revealing the details of people who had had such personal involvement in the site.  The contemporary video presentation fitted the content well, and the large tree for people to add their own votive wishes was very sweet.

At this point, I should certainly make mention of the website and blog which were created around the exhibition.  The website provides a background to the site and finds and the excellent blog has articles from museum staff and wider university experts which explore a variety of issues about the shrine, the archaeological questions it raises and the project to digitise and 3D scan the collections.  I hope the blog in particular remains live for a long time to come, as the article archive they have created is first rate, and has some stimulating content.  Ironically, the online content provides some of the imagery and sense of place that I felt was lacking in the exhibition itself.  You should definitely check them out!

As a final touch, I very much liked that the gardens which surround the museum building had had one of the flowerbeds specially turned into a representation of one of the terracotta male heads from the site.  Oh to be able to go back in time and tell the original depositor what his offering would one day be turned into!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Panda power

No trip to Chengdu would be complete without a trip to the city's panda breeding centre, though having been four times on different trips now, I think I'm running out of people willing to go with me.  Nevertheless, here, for your viewing pleasure, are my latest batch of giant and red panda photos from the centre.  My favourite ones from here will also be added to the main panda page. Enjoy!

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Bike helmet - you're doing it wrong...

One of the things about travelling in any country, especially China it seems, are the unusual things you see.  Of course, I have no desire to be cruel here and stupid things can be seen on the streets of Britain on a daily basis too, but just for fun, here are some of the things I saw on my recent trip back to China that made me chuckle.

The first is definitely my favourite, and the best version of a meme that I've ever happened across in my own life.  Taken out of the window of a moving car on my phone, which explains the slightly bad photo, but I'll let you spot the glaring gaff yourselves...

bike helmet meme doing it wrong china

Of course, motorbikes are a constant source of wonder for foreigners in China, with babies crammed in between multiple adults and amazing loads balanced on the back of small and knackered machines.  Whilst up on the Tibetan plateau I did come across this little party out for an afternoon ride.

bike people crammed

The use of the English language is a constant source of amusement for travellers in Asia (check out the very funny if you don't know it already), though equally Chinese characters are abused horribly in the west, so we can't exactly claim any moral superiority here.  Still, it's always funny to come across some mangled language, though in the case below it was less a case of garbled grammar and more one of simply not caring how to put a graphic on a car!

car china graphics backwards mistake

Shops in China are funny beasts.  Chinese cities contain a huge variety of establishments, from grubby backstreet family run places to gleaming luxury emporia.  Its actually the latter group that seem to promote the most weirdness, as many seem to compete to be the most 'western', albeit in ways that westerners find rather odd.  Shops names are a particularly great source of fun. My favourite ever was a fashion store in Beijing called 'Valued Squirrel.'

A recent fashion seems to be to take English words and combine them to create brands.  Two that really caught my eye in Chengdu are 'Prich' (combining 'Pride' and 'Rich') and 'Plory' ('Pride' and 'Glory') - who could fail to be impressed with such values!

Another one I found rather odd, if not even a little disturbing was a women's underwear brand (I swear I didn't spend my time looking at women's underwear), called 'Diana', with the tagline, and I quote directly, spelling mistake and all, 'Diana the Romance of Bbritish'.  *shudder*

Staying with the English language, while picking up some last minute food and drink to bring home with me I was rather startled by the jumper a staff member was wearing.  It proved rather difficult to get a good photo on my phone without the wearer thinking I was some weirdo stalker, but hopefully I got a good enough one.  Despite being nonsensical and containing seemingly random words, look out for the words that are rather inappropriate for a family supermarket!

Finally, while browsing in a very small shop in a little town we stopped off at in the Sichuan mountains, I saw this particularly good example of garbled English.  I realise I'm running the risk here of you all thinking that I'm obsessed with women's clothing so I promise that my next post about my Chinese travels will be more high-brow and cultural than this one!

Friday, 6 September 2013

Living life the Chengdu way

I'm safely back home after spending a few weeks basking in the wonderfully warm welcome my wife's family never fail to offer in her home city of Chengdu. Unlike a lot of trips where we've packed the schedule so full of sightseeing there's barely been time to draw breath, this trip was designed to be at a more leisurely pace, meaning lots more time strolling around the city, exploring its shopping areas and a few new historic sites such as Wenshu Monastery and the Sichuan Provincial Museum. Of course, being Chengdu it also meant a fair amount of drinking tea, eating copious amounts of delicious food and brushing up on my mahjong skills too!

mahjong majiang china game

sichuan china food meal

We did manage to slip in a few notable visits though - namely a drive up onto the Tibetan plateau and a day at the ancient dams at nearby Dujiangyan - both things I've wanted to do for a very long time.

No visit to Chengdu would be complete without seeing the city's famous furry black and white residents, so expect some more panda photos for the panda page very soon, as well as posts about my other experiences.

The lengthy travelling involved is always a bugbear when going back to China, especially if, like me, flying isn't exactly your favourite activity. Thankfully more and more airlines are offering international flights directly into Chengdu without having to fly right across China to Beijing or Shanghai only to fly right back across it again. It's about time they realised that Chengdu should be the hub for international flights into western China. Sadly our outward journey turned into something of an unwanted epic. What should have been a journey of 16 hours from Heathrow via Abu Dhabi turned into a 36 hour marathon - the knock on effect of a single earlier flight having a minor technical problem in the UAE.

The delay of our first flight from London led to a 13 hour wait in Abu Dhabi airport, followed by a diversion via Beijing - the flights to Chengdu are only every two days. To cap it all, a cocked-up booking by Air China meant that even the unplanned-for Beijing to Chengdu flight was missed and we had to wait another 3 hours in Beijing. Nightmare! Thankfully the return flight went to plan and 16 hours almost seemed short by comparison...