Rejuvenation may not be what we look for in museums but they need to be as youthful in attitude as their youngest visitor, and as invigorating as their oldest may need.
Immediately welcomed by the knowledgeable and helpful reception desk staff, anyone has the choice of self-guidance or discreet assistance. After numerous visits to the old incarnation I was quite unprepared for the huge scale model of Winchester in 1870, a labour of love for one former resident that now fills the ground floor gallery. This more than complements the historical models (from Iron Age on) that were previously a feature of and guide to understanding the development of a significant city. In fact these now complement that in a back-and-forth reflection on the passage of time.
With family living near the new monastery chapel, now church, said to have housed the bodies of King Alfred and his queen, and certain to feature in an archaeological dig on TV, I was interested in their location. The model showed it as agricultural or horticultural land, presumably once part of the monastery holdings. There are videos with commentary for anyone wishing to follow the historical development related to the model, but there are also sequential themes in the museum itself.
Upstairs the first gallery has Iron Age, Roman and Anglo Saxon displays. The sight of broken columns beneath a quotation from the Anglo Saxon poem known to modern readers as ‘The Ruin’ is moving in its simplicity with no need of elaboration. ‘Well wrought the wall,’ reads the translation, ‘Wierds broke it.’ The convention of i before e breaking the accepted English spelling of ‘weird’ is to emphasise the otherworldly and perhaps fatalistic powers that alone could destroy the ‘work of giants’.
What was broken down is beautifully exhibited in the fragments of hypocaust and mosaic that are a feature of the museum.There is also a reconstructed Roman kitchen. Equally, what the Romans did for the Iron Age people may appear in displays relative to each. All societies have their aesthetic and brutal aspects, ours being no different to any.
It is the evocation of domestic and, later, religious life that remains from any visit either to the museum or more generally the city itself. Nor is the military aspect to be ignored, with the barracks still occupying a significant site.
Winchester City Museum is free to enter, provides good facilities for the less mobile and relies on visitor contributions to complement the City Council and Heritage support. The suggested £3 is very modest.