Past, present and future of the museum of the Roman-Christian Necropolis of Tarragona

Over the past two months, news that Tarragona will receive seven millions for the restoration of the Early Christian Necropolis museum has brought this unique museum back into the local and national news. More on the news here.

It seems a happy coincidence that this news arrived precisely during the period of investigation I am conducting on this museum. It is not only the most interesting case of a museum of early Christian antiquities in Spain, but also one of the very few surviving examples of 1920s museum settings in Europe.

The museum was created and managed by the discoverer of the necropolis of Tarragona, Monsignor Joan Serra i Vilarò. Its contruction begun in late 1929 with the approval of the national government, and it was inaugurated in October 1930. It is a building in neo-classical style, built above part of the necropolis. The innovation of this museum lied in its being on-site, keeping the find close to the excavation site and preventing them from being taken to the national main museums, far from Tarragona. In this, as well as in the continuous publication of excavation results, Serra i Vilaró was a true pioneer.

The collection was displayed in three rooms. In the basement, a part of the necropolis was visible, then amphorae, some sarcophagi and other materials were arranged. On the first floor, a long corridor surrounded the central hall. The corridor was used as a gallery and the main decorated sarcophagi and some of the funerary mosaics found in the necropolis were displayed there.

The central hall is certainly the most interesting. Its layout is very reminiscent of the Roman museums of the time (in particular the lapidary galleries of the Vatican Museums): all the epigraphs found in the necropolis, including the smallest fragments, are arranged on the central part of the walls. In the centre of the room, several wooden showcases held the smaller finds from the tombs.

The museum and its layout were very similar to many other archaeological museums in the Mediterranean (an example can be seen here). But its uniqueness today lies in the fact that it has never been modified: the life of the museum after the turmoil of the civil war of 1938-39 (in which the museum was emptied and the collection temporary evacuated) was very quiet and the layout was never radically changed. In the last 30 years, on the contrary, it has been closed and abandoned, despite the modernisation of the necropolis. For many years now, public access has been prohibited for security reasons.
However, this has allowed the interior rooms to be preserved exactly as they were.

So what can we expect from the new incoming funds? That it will be possible to maintain as much of the original layout as possible, so that 21st-century visitors can live and understand the original experience of 1930s.

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