Curator's Choice: The Roman Frontier Gallery, Tullie House

Tim Padley interviewed by Ben Miller | 12 July 2011
In his own words: Tim Padley, Keeper of Archaeology at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, on the new Roman Frontier Gallery at the Carlisle venue...

"As we developed the gallery there was a to-ing and fro-ing of ideas. It arose from a project from Renaissance North-West to produce a world-class gallery and increase visitor numbers.
We regard ourselves as one of the bookends of Hadrian's Wall – the other one being Newcastle, because if you come by train or road, the main motorway or railways are Newcastle and Carlisle.
The Great North Museum [in Newcastle] had opened very near the beginning of our planning process [in November 2009] and we went to consult with them. We said 'we've got to do something totally different or people won't visit both venues.'
It’s split into sections – Britain's connection with the Roman empire, the changing frontier, Britain as a roman province, Roman Carlisle, and living frontiers.
Hadrian's Wall is a lovely place to go for a walk now, but it’s sanitised by history. It was a frontier was a war zone.
We didn't get everything we asked for. What we wanted was one specific Vindolanda writing tablet, because it talks about Carlisle in the 1st century. It says that the centurion was based at Luguvalium, and we thought this would be key to talking about the city in the early days.
But until our new Luguvalium display has been open for a reasonable amount of time and the British Museum knows that the monitoring and everything is working, they're not prepared to lend it, which is perfectly reasonable.
I don't think they have anything to worry about because our own writing tablets seem perfectly stable, but we don’t have that particular key one. We might ask them in 12 months' time.
We're in a constant dialogue with the British Museum. I'd speak to the Curator in Greek and Roman there and they'd say 'ooh, I'm sure I can find you a nice Goddess.'
We have a writing tablet which is probably the earliest example of handwriting from the whole province. It’s from the late 1st century, found just outside the museum on Castle Street, according to the address on the letter.
People don't really know about the Roman Empire, so we've commissioned a film [at the entrance] which tells the story in outline form, in five minutes, from Caesar to the time the Romans left at the beginning of the 5th century.
We've used heads of three of the big leaders of the empire. There's Vespasium, chosen because he was the person in charge in AD 72.
Hadrian is the wallbuilder, so everybody's heard of him. And Severus, the Libyan emperor, made the last big attempt to invade Scotland. He was going to sort it out once and for all. At some point when we did the brainstorming, we said his was a case of 'oh s***, let’s go and invade Afghanistan.' It's that kind of concept.
We want people to understand that this was an Empire which had certain kinds of ideas, manifested in the kinds of gods that they worshipped.
The Romans had one monetary system which they imposed right across their empire. We illustrate the connection of this one monetary system.
Once we've established the connection, we wanted to establish a frontier of conflicts and rivals to the imperial throne. There were 70 emperors in 400 years, which is quite a turnover when you consider that some of them ruled for 20 or 30 years. We call them the jobshare emperors."

See Tim Padley talk about jugs and inscriptions in the gallery:

Review: Roman Frontier Gallery tells tales from Cumbria's origins at Tullie House Museum

Five from the Frontier: Star objects from the new Roman Frontier Gallery at Tullie House

Five from the Frontier: More star objects from the new Roman Frontier Gallery at Tullie House
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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