In October 2017, a major exhibition space opens under Bloomberg LLP’s new European headquarters. Called ‘London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE’, it returns to its find-site the Third Century Temple of Mithras, excavated in 1954 by Grimes (Grimes, 1968); see also Shepherd (1998). The demolition of Bucklersbury House in 2005 permitted further investigation in 2010-14 by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). Bloomberg, a major US financial data firm, bought the land in 2010, when the archaeology was already underway and from the outset intended to display finds in a dedicated exhibition space (Symonds, 2013 p.17).
Interviews in 2013 were framed almost entirely by studies of the structure of the site, dubbed ‘London’s Pompeii’. The emphasis was on ‘star finds’ of artefacts used as landfill, with waterlogged conditions accidentally preserving wood, leather shoes)and wicker (Symonds, 2013, p.16). There was however a paragraph about some wooden tablets with text, one of which had been translated (Symonds (2013) p.17).
Little more was written until a major Current Archaeology article, again by Matthew Symonds (Symonds, 2016) prepared as part of a major Public Relations exercise by Bloomberg. On 1 June 2016, besides Symond’s article, there was a major new entry by MOLA ( http://www.mola.org.uk/blog/archaeological-research-britain’s-oldest-hand-written-documents-released) and a major article by National Geographic magazine (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/05/ancient-rome-London-Londinum-Bloomberg-archaeology-Boudicca-archaeology/).
Symonds’ 2016 article makes no mention of any artefacts except the texts, now dubbed ‘the Bloomberg Tablets’. The MOLA webpage includes a glossy video and a plug for the £32 book (Tomlin (2017)). The excavations are termed ‘Bloomberg Excavations’, although mostly completed before Bloomberg bought the site.
The problem with the foregrounding of the texts over the site is the texts are not from a sealed context, unlike the Vindolanda Tablets (Bowman, 1998). They were tipped in as discarded material over many years. Their value was as landfill, not as text.
Commerce has long funded permanent structures (e.g. Courtauld Institute, Tate Gallery, Sainsbury Centre, Norwich), but didn’t own the buildings. Sponsorship by newspapers was commonplace (White and Barker (1998) on Wroxeter, Cunliffe (1998) on Fishbourne), driven by a need for spectacular Roman finds, the ‘rush to Roman’ over archaeological value. Martin Millett comments that ‘Londinium is now probably both the most extensively and best-excavated major town of the Roman world ‘ (Millett, 2016, p.1692) but bemoans the absence of academic studies of sites, unpublished ‘grey literature’.
Bloomberg had not been involved in the vacant site, which had once been earmarked for Schroeders until 2010 (Entertainment Business Newsweekly 26/12/2010) but took it on, knowing the implications. The 501C3 US charitable structure expects rapid outlays to prove charitable, tax-deductable, intent.
There are two issues to consider from the Bloomsberg exhibition. First, unlike museum sponsorship, the display will be in the Bloomberg European Headquarters, designed by Norman Foster, rather than in the Museum of London; the Bloomberg building is designed to last a hundred years and the exhibition is permanent. It was already decided in 2013 that this would be so (Symonds 2013, pN), indicating this was not a decision that emerged over time, but was in place when Bloomberg bought the site.
In 2013, the emphasis was not on the writing tablets, only one of which had then been translated (Symonds, 2013); rather the research at that time was very much about the Walbrook riverfront. By 2016, the emphasis had changed strongly in favour of the texts (Symonds, 2016). I would ascribe this to the interests and agenda of Bloomberg.
The selection of Current Archaeology and National Geographic, popular rather than specialist publications, as media outlets suggests that, as Millett suggests, academic studies have been neglected and a firm emphasis has been developed towards mass entertainment, as the new Bloomberg Space is listed on tourism websites under ‘things to do’ ( http://www.visitlondon.com/things-to-do/place/45615751-london-mithraeum#7l4OCpo20F9OzmtA.97).
I should to comment on the words of (or written for) founder Michael Bloomberg:
As steward of this ancient site and artefacts, Bloomberg has embraced the City of London’s rich heritage. And as a company that is centered on communications – of data, information, news, and analysis – we are thrilled that Bloomberg has been at the core of a project that has provided so much new information about London’s first half-century (http://www.mola.org.uk/blog/archaeological-research-britain’s-oldest-hand-written-documents-released)
The Mithraeum had been in a safe relocation for 63 years. The Bloomberg PR refers to it ‘coming home’. Why is moving it from a public site on Queen Victoria Street nearby to a private site on top of where it was significant? The Mithraeum has nothing to do with the texts, so why show them together?
Some discontent about this is evident in an Evening Standard article (Holland, 2017) which informs readers about the Mithraeum but avoids mentioning Bloomberg. The Wikipedia article on the Mithraeum was recently edited by Bloomberg, adding ‘Visitors will also enjoy a series of contemporary art commissions responding to one of the UK’s most significant archaeological sites’ (Wikipedia edit 19/9/17). Is this a museum, art gallery, or merely a puff for Bloomberg?
The change in emphasis between 2013 and 2016 is startling. In 2016, there was no discussion of the Walbrook site or any artefacts. Box revetments and interesting shoes don’t sell exhibitions. Or make us like intrusive companies.
I see no evidence that Roman culture favoured business at all, the elite authors finding it ‘vulgar’ (Cicero De Officiis); quite a lot was known about the business opportunities at the time of the invasion (Pomponius Mela Chorographia). Greater interest seems to have been shown in mining, a state monopoly (Pliny the Elder Naturalis Historia)
The Bloomberg Space with its permanent exhibition is a perfect form of ‘edutainment’, a portmanteau term coined in 1954: it entertains people by purporting to educate them. The ‘blockbuster’ exhibition is something to tick off the list; tasteful and well-presented with subdued lighting and somewhere to sit. The audience for such exhibitions is usually older and looking for a good day out. To reuse Banksy’s phrase, they ‘exit through the gift shop’. They attend and briefly engage, but leave with a fridge magnet.
A Wall Street Journal article summed it up neatly: ‘Museums are also embracing the ability to use storytelling to engage people … in hopes to increase attendance; all the while, though, it is possible for the focus and purpose of museums to be diluted’ (Gamerman, 2015).
The change in emphasis from serious archaeology to edutainment (‘things to do’), casting early Roman London into a place for swashbuckling capitalism, seems designed to frame Bloomberg as its natural successor. The risks of that were highlighted in 2014 by Ballofet et al., commenting on ‘the appropriateness or potential risks of edutainment’.
Of course, edutainment is nothing new; I could argue that Aeschylus’ Persians was a staged event, while Augustus tells us in his Res Gestae how he reenacted the naval battle of Actium in the arena. What after all is a Roman triumph with its display of captured riches and bedraggled captives but live edutainment?
Cicero De Officiis 1.42.151, Loeb, (trans. W. Miller, 1989)
Pliny the Elder Naturalis Historia
Pomponius Mela Chorographia (trans. and ed. F.E. Romer 1998) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Angela, A. (2013) The Reach of Rome Trans. G Conti, New York: Random House.
Balloffet, P., Courvoisier, F.H. and Lagier, J. (2014). ‘From Museum to Amusement Park: The Opportunities and Risks of Edutainment’, International Journal of Arts Management. 16 (2).
Bowman, A.K. (1998) Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and its People, London: Routledge.
Cunliffe, B. (1998) Fishbourne Roman Palace, Stroud: Tempus.
Gamerman, E. (2015). "ARENA --- The Museum of The Future --- From 3-D headsets to holograms, new technologies are revolutionizing exhibits; is it entertainment or education?" The Wall Street Journal 16/10/2015.
Gillam, J.P., MacIvor, I & Birley, E. (1954) 'The Temple of Mithras at Rudchester'. Archaeologia Aeliana XXXII, 176-219.
Gillam, J.P. and Richmond, I. (1949) 'Excavations on the Roman site at Corbridge 1946-1949', Archaeologia Aeliana XXVI, 152.
Grimes, W.F. (1968) Excavation of Roman and Mediaeval London London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Holland, T. (2017) ‘The glory of Ancient Rome is right beneath our streets’ Evening Standard 8/8/17; viewable at <https://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/tom-holland-the-glory-of-ancient-rome-is-right-beneath-our-streets-a3606631.html>
Millett, M. (2016) ‘Improving our understanding of Londinium’ Antiquity, 12/2016, Vol.90(354), pp.1692-1699
Shepherd, J.D. (1998) The Temple of Mithras, London: excavations by W. F. Grimes and A. Williams at the Walbrook London: English Heritage.
Symonds, M. (2013) ‘London’s Pompeii? The rise and fall of a London waterfront’ Current Archaeology 280, May 2013, 12-17.
Symonds, M. (2016) ‘Letters from Londinium: Reading the earliest writing from Roman Britain’ Current Archaeology 317, June 2016, 36-40.
Tomlin, R.O. (2017) Roman London's First Voices: Writing Tablets from the Bloomberg Excavations, 2010-14: 72, Monograph Series; London: Museum of London Archaeology.
White, R. and Barker, P. (1998) Wroxeter: Life and Death of a Roman City Stroud: Tempus.
7 < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Mithraeum>
(All websites consulted 14/9/17, except Wikipedia (2/10/17))