A new gallery for London

Quite a day for museums in London today. In Bloomsbury, the Queen went to the British Museum to “reopen” the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia, after a major refurbishment (she opened the original in 1992). Over in the City, in a counter statement for outstanding philanthropy within the private sector, Michael Bloomberg opened another gallery, at Bloomberg’s new European HQ. I wrote about the launch of the whole building a couple of weeks ago. Today Bloomberg had another press day, to show off what they call London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE. It’s exciting, and there’s much to say. For now, I’m going to show some pictures to give you an idea of the morning, and what you can see when you visit. It opens to the public on November 14, and admission is free (details here).

We began with several excellent presentations in what must be one of London’s most luxurious lecture rooms, with lots of archaeology stories. Here are three of the speakers:

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Michael Bloomberg
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Sophie Jackson (MOLA)
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Bettany Hughes, enthusiastic and frighteningly eloquent so early in the morning

We actually began in the basement and worked up and out, but I’m going to show this the other way round – the way you would experience it if you came off the street.

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The Mithraeum has its own entrance onto Walbrook. You walk straight into a temporary art gallery (the SPACE).

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The opening commission consists of two works by Isabel Nolan, a Dublin artist who is deeply moved by history; she gave an impressive little speech, and I hope we will hear more from her in British Archaeology one day. Under the headline title Another View from Nowhen, The Barely Perceptible Vibration of Everything is a great, riotously coloured tapestry, and Blind to the Rays of the Returning Sun a form in painted tubular steel.

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Archaeologist John Shepherd and Isabel Nolan
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Louise Fowler points out details in The Barely Perceptible Vibration of Everything, transformed from Peter Grimes’ drawings from the 1954 excavation
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Four powerhouses from MOLA. Second from right is Janet Miller, MOLA’s chief executive since January. The others are key players in the Bloomberg site’s archaeology, from left, Sadie Watson, Sophie Jackson and Louise Fowler
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An extraordinary display case, over 600 artefacts from the Bloomberg excavation shown like something from a Damien Hirst exhibition, a permanent installation at the back of SPACE

There is a narrow, dark polished-stone lined stair from SPACE down to the Mithraeum (or you can take a lift). The walls are marked with archaeological layers with occasional events and dates, in a real-space representation of the depth of the site’s stratigraphy. This takes you to a sort of holding floor which has some introductory displays in the dim light; in situ remains of the Mithraeum lie hidden and safe below.

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Further down to a third floor, 7m below modern street level, is the temple itself, an almost obsessively precise reconstruction of the ruin that Grimes excavated and recorded in 1954, using what survived in the 1960s version which was sited away on another part of the site. Now it’s at the right depth and the right orientation, and just a little to the west of the original site to preserve the unexcavated remains.

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It’s not just a rebuild: it’s theatre. Sound and light create an impression of being in a temple, and it’s extremely effective, mysterious and slightly scary. It’s dark and difficult to photograph in a hurry, but I think you can see one impressive effect: the two colonnades of the original temple, whose parallel rows of seven pillars were indicated in the ground (and are so shown now in the reconstruction) by circular base stones, are recreated with light. In the darkness, floods from above cast shadows from suspended black forms that become capitals on ghostly columns. Wow.

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Finally, something I’d missed in my tour of the building a couple of weeks ago. On the sixth floor (the great assembly level with the view of St Paul’s) is another archaeological work. They’re called Artefact Tables, which is exactly what they are: public meeting and resting tables that double as display cases, with groups of finds (pottery sherds) visible through rounded windows in the tables’ glass tops. They are designed by Studio Joseph, New York City, working with MOLA.

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