SMF Pop-Up: Roman Empire: Power and People at the McManus Dundee

Scottish Museums Federation Committee Member and National Mining Museum Assistant Curator, Lynsey Anderson writes about the Federation’s most recent pop-up at the McManus in Dundee.

I always love it when I manage to make it to a SMF pop-up so it was with great excitement that I left work early and headed to the train station to set off to Dundee (even with the tense few moments when the ticket machine decided it didn’t want me to make my train). It’s nice to get the opportunity to visit exhibitions with other museum people and know that what my friends may call ‘nerdy museum talk’ will be more appreciated. Following a lovely train journey with some beautiful views in the sunshine and the excitement of going over the Forth Rail Bridge, I made it to the McManus where David kindly took the very touristy photo below.McManus

I am ashamed to say that despite living in nearby St Andrews for 4 years I never managed to get round to visiting the McManus so it was great to finally make it! The incredibly impressive Gothic Revival style building is an incredible setting for a Museum and the lovely open reception and café area, refurbished 5 years ago, makes it incredibly welcoming. However, as we were there primarily to visit the temporary exhibitions, I will definitely have to return and explore the rest of the galleries.

Arriving at the McManus, it was fantastic to see so many new faces to SMF, including a number of museum studies student from St Andrews who had come across for the afternoon and even a couple of new MGS trainees! We were welcomed by Christina Donaldson, Curator of Early History, who was kind enough to show us around the exhibition and tell us a little about how it came to be. ‘The Roman Empire: Power and People’ is a touring exhibition from the British Museum and the McManus is its only Scottish venue so it was lovely to have the opportunity to see it while it was here.

Our first glimpse of the exhibition was this wonderful sculpture of a barbarian which greeted us in an alcove in the steps leading up to the exhibition itself. Not only did this act as an effective satellite to the exhibition, it has a symbolic meaning too in that barbarians were seen to be outside the Empire, in the same way this statue is outside the exhibition.


After ascending the stairs we entered the exhibition gallery with its beautiful wooden-beamed roof and were able to get our first impression of the exhibition itself. It was in the entrance way to the exhibition that Christina began to tell us the story of how this exhibition came to be at the McManus. We found out that for a long time Christina had wanted to put on a Roman-based exhibition so it was possibly fate that led to her opening her Museum Journal and seeing an advert seeking venues for the British Museum’s new Roman Exhibition.


It was interesting to hear from Christina the benefits and challenges of taking on a touring exhibition. For me, I loved how the McManus staff had taken the British Museum’s exhibition and ‘Dundee-ified’ it, including a Scottish timeline, items from their own collections, loans from National Museum Scotland and Perth and Kinross Museums as well as local finds to add local flavour and interest. I think this is an important lesson for anyone who is thinking of hosting an external exhibition – find a way to make it as relevant as possible to your audience. Dundee and the surrounding area have a really interesting Roman history which is probably unknown to a lot of people, with nearby Carpow fort revealing many interesting artefacts during its excavation. The museum had also produced their own text and labels and had very cleverly colour-coded all of these so that theirs could be differentiated from those produced by the British Museum.


Another interesting tip was Christina’s move to use this exhibition to create benefits that will remain long after it departs for its next venue in May. This is the first temporary exhibition held by the McManus that has included a range of 3D objects, allowing Christina the chance to apply for a MGS grant to purchase display cases which will completely change the way temporary exhibitions can be presented here in future. The Barabarian statue mentioned earlier also allowed for the installation of lights in this area giving another space to showcase items.


After our interesting chat we were all given the chance to have a good look around the exhibition. There were a lot of fascinating pieces, including some magnificent sculptures, Egyptian masks and objects from Dundee’s own collections, as well as a well-designed interactive map. I was impressed by the choice to have so many of the beautiful sculptures on open display and the wide range of objects from tiny Roman coins to large intricate wall hangings – very trusting. The exhibition gives a wonderful insight into the expansion of the Roman Empire and into the lives of the people living under Roman rule and it has been very well-received with Christina telling us that visitor numbers have been much higher than usual (another huge bonus of hosting a touring exhibition like this)!
Following this, we also had a look around the accompanying exhibition ‘Classical Art and the Legacy of the Ancients’ which provided a very different look and feel, featuring some beautiful artwork and an interesting perspective on the lasting influence of classical art. The thematic sections looked at landscape, sculpture, myth, classical education and enduring influence to show the massive impact it continues to have today. I seriously recommend taking a visit to Dundee to view these two exhibition before they go! We all had a great afternoon and even managed to find time for a cheeky #statueselfie.

statue selfie

Following this, the majority of us adjourned to BrewDog Dundee where we were joined by friends from Museum Galleries Scotland and Dig It! 2015 for an ever-popular #Drinkingaboutmuseums (complete with some very yummy pie)! It is always fun to have the chance to chat about people’s work and discuss ideas in such a relaxed environment. Thanks to all the organisers, particularly to Christina for her fascinating insight, and to everyone who came along for the fabulous chat. Until the next time…

The Roman Empire: Power and People is on at the McManus Dundee until Sunday 15 May 2015.

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