Photo Gallery: Meet the team bringing Romans to our doorsteps

Roman Empire - Power and People exhibition being mounted at Norwich castle museum. Photo: Bill Smith Roman Empire - Power and People exhibition being mounted at Norwich castle museum. Photo: Bill Smith

Sunday, February 2, 2014
10:40 AM

As the ‘Roman Empire: Power and People’ exhibition opens at Norwich Castle Museum today, Trevor Heaton meets the behind the scenes team who have put it on display.

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Roman Empire: Power and People

• It runs at Norwich Castle Museum to April 27. The exhibition has been developed in partnership with Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives and the British Museum.

• The exhibition – for which the EDP is media partner – throws new light on the story of the remarkable empire and its incredibly diverse people.

• It includes more than 160 superb pieces from the British Museum, including sculpture from two Imperial villas, jewellery, mirrors, part of the famous Hoxne treasure, items superbly preserved in the deserts of North Africa and much more.

• Norwich Castle is also adding hundreds of its own treasures to the exhibition, many of which have only been discovered recently in Norfolk and have never been put on show before.

• Only six venues in the UK are staging this prestigious exhibition, which has been two years in the planning.

• A packed programme of events will accompany the exhibition. They include:

• This Tuesday, 12.30-1pm, a lunchtime talk: Religious Cults in Roman Norfolk, with Dr Adrian Marsden, no need to book.

• And next Saturday, at 1pm (rated U, for children and families) and 2.30pm (rated 12A, for older children and adults) there’s Pompeii Live, a film exploring the wonders of the 2013 British Museum exhibition, Castle Lecture Theatre. Both these events are included in museum admission.

For more details, Click here for the museum website.

We’ve all had those head-scratching home-owner moments. You know the sort of thing, when we try to make sure we’ve done the painting and tiling before the new washing machine arrives. Or was it supposed to be tiling BEFORE the painting? And, hang on, when exactly was the washing machine supposed to be arriving again?...

Not easy, is it? Now imagine trying to do the same for a space about as big as an average house, when there might be not one or two but 50 different suppliers turning up on your doorstep, plus the painters, electricians and many other experts besides. Oh, and then you need to take it all down, package up everything you’ve done back in the boxes they arrived in (without a scratch, mind), make sure they are safely sent off again – and then do it all again the next week with something completely different.

That gives just a taste of the teamwork at Norwich Castle Museum behind the superb series of exhibitions run for the people of Norfolk and beyond every year.

And it’s been demonstrated yet again with the latest – Roman Empire: Power and People, the blockbuster archaeology exhibition brought to Norfolk by the British Museum – which opens today.

It’s a example of teamwork at its best, from the curators to the electricians, the painter and decorators to the designers, the event planners to the technicians, the senior management to the display-builders. You wouldn’t believe the amount of planning and co-ordination that goes on to make sure that, come opening day, all is running smoothly.

As one of that team, Fi Hitchcock, exhibition coordinator, says, “If I do a good job you shouldn’t even know I’m here” – a sentiment which could equally apply to other members of the 14 or so people who have helped to bring this national-class exhibition to our doorsteps.

‘Roman Empire’ has been two years in the planning, with the initial contacts made between Chief Curator Dr John Davies and the British Museum, and staff at Bristol Museums, the other exhibition partners.

Ideas for exhibitions are dealt with at strategic level. Once approved by the senior management team, the curators of the relevant departments start having their ‘could we please borrow…?’ conversations with their counterparts at other museums round the country.

“In a sense the curator IS the project,” Fi explained. “It’s their enthusiasm and knowledge which takes it forward.”

Enthusiasm and knowledge could equally apply to Fi herself. “I actually began here at Norwich Castle as a volunteer,” she said. She went on to study archaeology, and then a master’s.

She worked for the likes of the British Museum before heading back to the county in 2009, with her first exhibition being The Art of Faith.

That is a good example of how Fi must be more than just a ‘good organiser’. That exhibition involved some items which had never left their Norfolk churches – ever. So the churchwardens were understandably a little wary...

“Two questions I was asked were ‘Are we going to get it back?’, and ‘Are you going to look after it?’ ” (The answer was to both was ‘yes’)

“There are relationships and trust to develop sometimes, yes – but that’s half the fun.”

Trust-building is only part of it. There’s the small matter of (deep breath) insurance, security, image rights, documentation, scheduling, standards, logistics, and much, much more.

“All these nuts and bolts… I have to think about the things that no-one else has,” she adds simply. “If there’s questions then I need to have the answers.”

Her part-time post is ACE (Arts Council England) funded, an essential component of making sure Norwich Castle can stage its own, and touring, exhibitions of high quality. “Excellence is our goal, and we have a very strong programme.” You may surprised to learn that programme is pencilled in sometimes years ahead. “Romans was two years in the planning. We’re already settling things for 2016/17 and mooting projects for 2018 and later…”

‘Roman Empire’ has involved Fi dealing with one lender (the British Museum), but the next exhibition, The Wonder of Birds (coming late May) involves no fewer than 50, all of which need to be gently but efficient organised to have their exhibits ready for arrival at exactly the right time.

“It’s different, fast-moving and lovely to talk to the other people here and other museums,” Fi added. “Everyone loves what they do.”

Before anyone or anything can move into the exhibition space for the next stage, there’s the small matter of making sure everything fits. That’s where Jon Maxwell, Head of the Design and Technical Team and the exhibition designer, comes in.

It’s his brief to make sure that everything will slot into in the exhibition space, and if changes need to be made then they are subtle and do not detract from the exhibition’s ‘narrative’. One of the things is he does is prepare detailed floor plans and 3D designs of how everything needs to fit together.

Touring exhibitions such as this one can create their own challenges, as every venue is different. All need to be dealt with before the exhibition can be physically put together.

So, with a few days to go to the big opening day, everything moves up a gear. Or two. Or three…

When I catch up with Lorenza Peachey, co-ordinator within the Design and Technical Team and Curatorial department, it’s Opening Night minus nine days, and already the display galleries are filling up nicely.

Everywhere there are the solid orange cases in which the specialist logistics firm used by the BM moves its precious and fragile treasures round the country, and the world. Never, perhaps, has ‘This Way Up!’ on a packing case been stencilled on with more feeling.

There’s an atmosphere I can best describe as ‘controlled bustle’. The key word there is ‘controlled’ – because no-one can afford to take their eye off the ball when it comes to planning.

“It’s my job to co-ordinate all the contractors, painters, decorators… it’s all about slotting everyone in,” she explained.

Lorenza explained that once an exhibition has finisheed it can take a week to dismantle it and make sure everything is sent on – or put back – correctly.

“Then we get the painters and decorators in to patch up the walls. At the same time we’ll start putting up the display cases and painting the Panelock screens [a special sort of large display boards].”

Next comes the delivery of the main physical structure of the exhibition – what insiders call ‘the build’. Every display case needs to be in exactly the right space, with the right graphics.

Now it’s the turn of the lighting. “We always adjust it at the very end too,” says Lorenza.

Once the crates containing the objects arrive, they are carefully removed and checked over. Sometimes – very rarely – there might be the need for some conservation work.

“We start to fill everything up case by case: graphics, lights, objects, alarms. Once it’s done we lock up the case and don’t open it again until the exhibition’s over.” The cases can be huge. One, known as the ‘Sillett case’, needs five people to lift its glass front on.

The Roman exhibition even involves building two ‘false walls’, behind which the many crates and packaging are being stored out of sight of the public.

And finally, reader, I had to ask. That slap-the-forehead moment when your new sofa won’t fit through the living room door, or you forgot you measured up in inches and not centimetres. We’ve all been there, so..?

“Oh yes, we’ve had them too,” laughs Lorenza. “We’ve had packing cases turn up that are too wide for the doors…”

Ah, but unlike us lesser mortals, this only happens once in a blue moon. Actually, much rarer than that; they’re far too organised. Already Fi, Lorenza, Jon and all the other members of the team are thinking ahead to their next deadline – the opening of The Wonder of Birds in late May.

I asked Fi if, with all this planning, if she ever had that ‘…(sigh) and relax!...’ moment?

She laughs. “For a couple of hours anyway, after the opening night. Then it’s back the following week to start planning for the next one…”

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