Roman around | Wroxeter Roman City, Shropshire - Museums Association

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Roman around | Wroxeter Roman City, Shropshire

A revamp has brought this ancient site back to life
Heritage Interpretation Roman
Emma-Kate Lanyon
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A vista of the Roman bath house ruins © English Heritage Trust

First established as a fortress base for the conquest of west Britain, the Roman city beneath modern-day Wroxeter became the fourth largest town in Roman Britain during the first to the fifth centuries CE. It functioned as both a centre and physical expression for the empire’s administration of the locality while also providing cultured living standards. 

The later abandonment of the city, and Shrewsbury’s emergence as the county town in the early medieval period, meant that this English Heritage site was preserved from later development and urbanisation. Since the first antiquarian excavations in the 1850s, a small visitor centre has displayed key finds, helping visitors to better understand the exposed ruins. However, things have moved on significantly from the tin shed and trestle tables of yesteryear.

The existing visitor centre at Wroxeter was constructed in the 1970s and sits at the entrance to the site. Its small footprint works hard, providing a reception point, a well-stocked shop and a museum. Even with just a small group of visitors waiting to enter, this creates a bottleneck at the start of your visit. However, staff on site are friendly, efficient and welcoming. 

A low lit modern gallery space with interpretatoin panels, objects in cases skirting the walls and a map interactive in the foreground
New interactives and display cases appeal to families© Jim Holden

The toilet facilities are well maintained and include an accessible toilet with baby changing facilities and sanitation points. Outside, picnic benches are provided. Beyond the museum, the ruins of the basilica and bath house can be explored, while a reconstructed town house helps visitors visualise the appearance and scale of the town’s buildings. 

New lease of life

When I last visited, the displays felt somewhat dated and tired for such a significant site. The museum space has now been transformed, giving it a sense of atmosphere, which was lacking before. Clear sightlines, ample circulation space for families and wheelchairs and a simple but effective tabletop visual presentation animate the space and invite visitors in. 

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The museum gives an overview of Wroxeter’s history and showcases about 500 key objects. These have been selected to give a sense of the personal experience of the city’s inhabitants. Display cases at wheelchair height with adjacent interpretation panels tell this story thematically, from the city’s origins to the main activities within its defences. 

A reconstruction roman townhouse, painted mustard yellow and beams and a porch supported with columns
The reconstructed Roman townhouse© English Heritage Trust

The exhibition also introduces key topics to consider. These include the relationship between the native population and arriving Romans, the role of women, slavery in the ancient world and the multicultural life of Wroxeter as part of the wider Roman empire. However, these brief references raised more questions for me than the small space was able to fully explore and answer.

The new interpretation across the whole site has been developed to improve access for visitors, both physically and intellectually. A family audience is clearly in mind, with a nuclear family of father, mother, son and daughter used to guide visitors around the site. Presentation is clean, with panels providing information about specific buildings and their function. Similarly, reconstruction drawings are used effectively throughout, while contemporary quotes help to bring the topic to life. Some 3D elements are included on the panels, which would be welcomed by visually impaired visitors. While this did not extend to braille or raised plans of the buildings being described, a braille guide is available. 

At the reconstructed townhouse, some of these panels sit behind a guard rail making them difficult to read for those with sight impairments. No large-print texts were available and audio transcripts for the whole site are also lacking.

Several simple but effective interactives are incorporated into the museum and wider site displays. However, when I visited, a busy summer had already taken its toll. The rotating elements of the festivals’ interactive were sticking and difficult to turn, and the steelyard weight interactive was broken. Its subtle colour-coding would also have been difficult to follow if colour blind.

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There is a handheld audioguide, which is simple to use, insightful and well-paced. The content includes optional additional audio clips with different experts, adding a variety of voices. Dramatised, imagined conversations at points around the site also add colour. However, the townhouse would have benefited from a sense of background noise, activity and smell to bring what felt like an abandoned home back to life.

Seating is provided inside, under cover and outdoors allowing visitors to take the tour at their own pace. And benches next to interpretation points offer a chance to stop and absorb the audioguide. 

Some light terracotta and white fragments of pottery and mosaic
A piece of mosaic from the ceiling of the bath house is among the more than 500 objects on displayPhoto Richard Lea-Hair; Courtesy of English Heritage

An additional children’s activity guide was available on request, which included games such as spotting the worn steps, offering clear learning outcomes. However, it is very text based with no easy-read alternative. The guide sheets could have encouraged more imaginative play or visual activities while offering fun activities, such as role-play in the reconstructed shop, would give families a welcome change of pace.

Steep steps

Those using wheelchairs would need help to navigate doors and gates and the accessible route to the townhouse was unclear, although ramps are available once you reach the house. Some of the site’s key interpretation points are raised to give a better view of the ruins and are only accessible via steep steps. 

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The press-release for the relaunch gives an in-depth narrative around objects in the museum, exploring and contrasting Roman beauty standards to ours today in a way that was engaging and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, the limited space for display and interpretation means that such discussion points are missing for on-site visitors. The section on medicine could have discussed disability, and attitudes towards sexuality and gender in the Roman world were not mentioned anywhere.

Some opportunities for inclusivity were completely missed. For example, as a parent I might have struggled to explain the role of the family’s slave girl without some supporting information.

But overall, the reinterpretation of Wroxeter is a vast improvement from what it was before, with the site now offering a more family-friendly visit.

Emma-Kate Lanyon is the curator at Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery

Project data
Cost
Undisclosed
Funding
English Heritage
Exhibition design
Anonymous Associates
Graphic design
Anonymous Associates
Lighting
DHA design services
Interactives
Fifex
Software
Clay Interactive
Graphic production
Wood & Wood Signs; Rivermeade
Interpretation
English Heritage in house team
Display cases
ClickNetherfield
Mounts
Colin Lindley
Access
Direct Access
Admission
Adult £8.50; child £4.50; concessions £7.50

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