Curator's Choice: Hadrian's stonework, the Wroxeter Roman Mirror and a polar bear

By Ben Miller | 27 March 2014

Curator’s Choice: Emma-Kate Lanyon, Head of Collections and Curatorial Services, on the new £10 million Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery

A photo of roman stone artefacts inside a museum gallery
Shrewsbury's new museum combines a Victorian Music Hall and a 13th century mansion for a collection stretching back to the Bronze Age© ThreeSixtyCommunications
“Wroxeter was the fourth-largest Roman city and, unlike Roman cities in Britain, it didn’t develop as a modern urban centre.

It kind of died away and the urban area became Shrewsbury. It was really unique in that all the archaeology was just buried under fields undisturbed.

So the quality of the archaeology and the finds was really unsurpassed, which means that the Roman collection that we have is one of the finest provincial Roman collections, with a couple of really stunning, internationally important objects.

A photo of the outside of a grey brick museum within a square
The museum's collection has moved around the town for 200 years© ThreeSixtyCommunications
The Hadrianic Forum Inscription is the inscription that stood over the forum dedicating the town of Wroxeter and marking Hadrian’s dedication of it. It seems that Hadrian actually visited Wroxeter.

It’s probably one of the finest pieces of Roman sculpture north of the Alps. Like all the Roman stonework that we’ve got on display, it’s gone off to be conserved. It’s been professionally cleaned and repaired.

Moving the inscription out of Rowleys House was a feat in itself. It is a very sizeable thing – in fact, we had to take some windows out of the old building and use a cherry picker to get up to the window and bring it down. That was a heart-in-the-mouth afternoon."

The Wroxeter Roman Mirror

"This is a solid silver mirror that was made in the Rhineland and is the finest Roman mirror to be found in Britain.

So not only is it a very beautiful thing, it also is an indicator that someone of incredible importance and wealth probably came from the continent and was living and working in Wroxeter. It just highlights the importance of that town during the Roman period.

It’s in a remarkably good state. It was excavated during the 1920s – it was actually found leaning up against a wall in one of the buildings off the forum.

It was literally standing where it had been left. It’s in incredibly good condition and being solid silver it hasn’t kind of degraded."

The opening exhibition of works, from Frank Cohen’s collection

“We’re incredibly grateful for Frank’s involvement in the project because he has allowed us to borrow a number of items from his collection.

That includes works by Tracey Emin and other significant names that people will know. It’s been really nice to open with an exhibition that brings internationally-important art to Shrewsbury.

Frank’s collection is held in Wolverhampton. We approached him about whether he’d be willing to support us and he was very supportive.

A photo of sculptures inside a museum showing the skeleton of a dinosaur and a dog
Home Improvement Company founder Cohen is a keen supporter of galleries© ThreeSixtyCommunications
I brought my daughter in the other day to help me polish cases before the opening and she was really fond of a piece called The Big Kiss [by Chinese artist Chen Lei], which is a little boy looking up at a little polar bear balancing on his nose. It is life-size, so it’s a really striking piece."

The new museum

"Rowleys House – although it’s a fantastic historic building – wasn’t really fit for purpose to be a museum for the 21st century. We were looking at alternative premises or developing the site.

Then the opportunity came to build a new theatre for Shrewsbury and that freed up the old Music Hall site. I think it was probably in about 2002 that they looked at the feasibility of converting that into a museum.

The works kind of started in earnest in 2006. Two years after that we became a unitary authority, so their museum service merged with the county museum service. That really opened up the possibilities for developing it as a county museum and creating links between two collections that were strong in two very different areas.

We’ve got a very strong Roman collection. Rowleys House first opened as a museum in the 1930s - I think it was 1938 - as the Viroconeum Museum, so all the finds that came from the excavations in the 1920s and earlier were all put on display at Rowleys. And that’s a particularly fine collection.

The Music Hall complex itself is a collection of historic buildings. The oldest one is an old medieval merchant’s house.

During the building works it became apparent that the building was structurally very unsound and in fact was in imminent danger of collapse. In fact I think the structural engineers that looked at it said it had negative structural integrity and they weren’t sure why it was still standing.

So in fact it was lucky that the development happened when it did and that we were able to catch it – literally, in a steel cradle.

The building is now all supported but that was a huge extra addition to the project in terms of time and money. That kind of slowed the project down by two or two and a half years.

We re-engineered the whole project and we were able to find that money from within the project. We knew we were dealing with historic buildings so we were aware that we needed a very large contingency, so that was eaten up and then we made savings elsewhere in the project to cover those.

We’ve managed to come in marginally over budget. I think there were times when people looked at whether it was sensible to progress with it, but I think we all felt that we had reached a point where it was beyond the stopping point.

The money was all secured, it had been ringfenced for this project so it wasn’t as if we had to dip into the council’s coffers at a time of financial problems.

We stuck to our budget and I think we’ve achieved something that will really put Shrewsbury on the map. We’re very pleased at what we’ve been able to achieve in a time when you’ve got financial austerity and museums are struggling to survive."

  • Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery opens on April 1 2014. Open 10am-5pm until September 30, Tuesday-Sunday 10am-4.30pm from October 1. Admission £2-£4 (free for under-4s). Follow the museum on Twitter @shrewsmuseum.

A photo of a gallery space containing pieces of modern art
Roger Ballen, Damien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman. The Big Kiss, by Chen Lei, can be seen on the right of this photo© ThreeSixtyCommunications
An image of a piece of art showing a gorilla next to a person against a red floral pattern
Charming Baker, Intelligence Is No Match For Adaptability© Frank Cohen Collection
A photo of a museum gallery with birds in cases and a sign saying the shropshire gallery
Sections of the displays are dedicated to Charles Darwin, who was born and studied in the town© ThreeSixtyCommunications
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